Friday, December 22

Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme, warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white war horse (destrier). The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.

One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings ruling over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788.

The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.

The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.

The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog.

Saturday, December 23

Revelation 20:1-15: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. In order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to John. In the Judaism of John’s time there was the popular belief that the Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more recently, in Hitler’s fantasy of a “thousand-year Reich”). This popular belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who live a thousand generations.

John’s scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is portrayed as a very old man, the “Ancient of Days,” who would take the authority from the fourth beast and give it to God’s holy ones, those who are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14).

We note that Daniel 7 speaks of “thrones” in the plural, which Christians understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah (Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To say that the believers will judge does not mean, of course, that they will judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the depths of the human heart.

Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history’s end, will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of history.

This, then, is their thousand years’ reign. It is that area of Christian experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of them the battle with Gog and Magog.

Sunday, December 24

Matthew 1:1-17: St. Matthew breaks the genealogy of Jesus into three parts: “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 roughly corresponds to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writing during the post-monarchical period.

By way of meditation on this text, it seems reasonable to take one character from each of these sections of the genealogy. Each chaacter, I suggest, should declare something particular with respect to the Mystery of the Incarnation.

From the first period, let us consider the character of Isaac, to whom Jesus likened Himself when He told His enemies, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and rejoiced” (John 8:56). Our Lord thus refers to the laughter of Abraham in Genesis 17, when he learned he and Sarah would become parents to a miraculous child in their old age.

Isaac was God’s joke on salvation history, the great demonstration of His power to create something new when all hope is lost. Isaac, then, is one of the Bible’s great symbols of joy and hope. His miraculous conception and birth prefigured the birth and conception of the Savior. For this reason, said Jesus, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and rejoiced.”

The first announcement of the Lord’s birth emphasized this component of joy: “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

When Holy Scripture exhorts us—as it frequently does—to joy, this is an exhortation to consider the reasons and motives for joy. True joy requires the effort of memory and the labor of reflection.

From Matthew’s second period of the Lord’s genealogy, l suggest we consider the figure of King Jotham, that ancestor of our Lord who reigned over Judah, first in a co-regency and then on his own, from 750 to 735 B.C.

If Isaac symbolizes rejoicing, Jotham is portrayed as a tragic figure, frustrated as the massive infidelities of his time. Both his father Uzziah and his son Ahaz were unfaithful kings, and Jotham’s independent rule, from 742 to 735, was too short for him to reform the nation. Indeed, the nation did not want to be reformed. Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles attest of Jotham, “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” but this contemporary of Isaiah had very little influence over the infidelity and waywardness of the nation. Jotham, the Bible tells us, “ordered his ways before the Lord his God.” This is an expression of praise we do not often find in the descriptions of biblical kings! Jotham’s cross, however, was to rule a sinful nation without the ability to reform it.

He thus appears as a tragic figure in the genealogy of our Lord, prefiguring the mystery of the Cross. Jotham was a tragic figure, a man frustrated in his best efforts, who died with a sense of failure. Even the memory of history has not been kind to Jotham, in spite of what Holy Scripture says of him.

From Matthew’s third period in the Lord’s genealogy, let us think of Zerubbabel. Though he was an heir in the royal line of David, and a direct ancestor of Christ our Lord, was never a king of Judah. When he led the Chosen People back from Babylon in 538, it was only as a governor appointed by the Persian throne. Indeed, the house of David would never again sit on the royal throne at Jerusalem.

Zerubbabel did, however, restore God’s People to the Promised Land, it was he that organized the construction of the Second Temple. Even though he never had access to the kind of authority that was rightfully his, Zerubbabel laid hold on whatever task was before him. He symbolizes renewal.

And renewal is an important aspect of the Birth of our Lord. Like Zerubbabel, Jesus had not earthly throne, nor did He need one. He renewed our humanity by taking it on, by assuming it as His own. Jesus entered history in order to transform the human race from within.

Jesus Himself is the Third Temple of God’s people.

Monday, December 25

Psalm 2: The Book of Psalms, having begun on a theme associated with Wisdom, next turns to messianic considerations. Psalm 2 commences: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine something vain.” The “blessed man” introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. 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).

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.”

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.”

Tuesday, December 26

Matthew 1:18-25: God’s Son, born in a town called “the house of bread” (beth-lehem, was placed in a “manger,” a place for eating (cf. French verb, manger, and the Italian, mangiare.

God’s Son came into this world in order to be eaten. Ezekiel, at the beginning of his ministry was shown a scroll, on which he beheld writing “on the inside and on the outside” (2:10). The prophet was commanded to eat the scroll, which was, of course, God’s Word of revelation.

Now God’s Word, according to St. John Chrysostom, “is ever eaten yet never consumed,” so the scroll of Ezekiel was not destroyed when he ate it. Indeed, John the Seer later described his own memorable encounter with that same document (Revelation 5:1).

I suggest that we look more closely at that revelatory scroll and inquire, more specifically, why it is written on both sides and what this means.

Since the Scroll is God’s Word, the inside of it, if I am not deceived, is the Father’s eternal Logos written from within. The Father writes inasmuch as He begets the Word, God from God, light from light. Also, in order not to be taken for Arians, let us surely and promptly insist that at no point did God begin to write this Word; He is, rather, the unbegotten Scribe, ho Grammateus ho anarchos, who pens His Composition in the grammar of eternity.

As for the Scroll, it is the eternal inscription of the Father, His only begotten Son, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. Indeed, according to the Creed, the Scroll is of one essence (homoousios) with the Scribe. The written message, therefore, is absolutely complete and sufficient, though no one but God can read it; no one knows the Son but the Father.

For reasons having to do with goodness and love, however, the Father is not satisfied with keeping this eternal Word on the inside, all to Himself, as it were. He determines, rather, for the Scroll also to be written ad extra, on the outside, so that the goodness and love of the Scribe and the Scroll may be shared with a multitude of readers—so that the love with which the Father loves the Son may be in them, and He in them.

Therefore, with the willing (but necessary) cooperation of a second writer, a young Galilean woman, the Scroll is inscribed on a second side, when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The Scroll remains, nonetheless, one and the same, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. It is a single Scroll inscribed on two faces, positioned in the two directions that constitute Salvation History, homo Deo, Deus homini.

These two directions—man to God and God to man===indicate that the Scroll is the medium of a transmission, and not the medium only, but also the Mediator, the single link between God and all that is not God. Those on the outside have no access to the inside except through that Scroll, for the simple reason that the Father has no dealings with any creature, not even in the act of Creation, except through His Son.

The Scroll, moreover, is wonderfully translucent, so the glory that shines through it is “the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” It is truly luminous, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Man was created, in fact, for no other purpose than for the enjoyment of this Scroll.

Nor was the Incarnation a kind of divine afterthought. Indeed, the first lineaments on the Scroll’s second side were already penciled-in, as it were, in Creation itself, when man was formed capax Dei. This expression (for which, I apologize, there is no real English equivalent) means, not only that human nature was so constructed as to capable of elevation to the divine nature by grace; it also means that man’s nature was so formed, in the act of its Creation, as to be capable of assumption by God’s Word. Humanity was designed with a view to the Hypostatic Union.

Moreover, truly to affirm the Incarnation we should say—with all the reverence we can muster—not only that man is capax Dei, but also that God must in some sense be capax hominis. There is something about God’s eternal Scroll that makes it capable of receiving an inscription on a second side. The translucency of the Incarnation thus teaches us something also of the inner life of the Scroll; this is the Revelation given us in Christmas.

Wednesday, December 27

1 John 1:1-7: At the beginning of this epistle, we find two senses of the word “we”: “we” as distinct from “you,” and “we” in the sense of “you and I.”

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).

In verse 7 of 1 John, however, the Apostle changes the sense of “we”; it now means, “you and I”: “But if we walk in the light, as he also is in the light, we have communion (koinonia one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

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.

This ecclesial society, this koinonia (verses 3 [twice],6,7), does not begin with our relationship with God. On the contrary, it begins with our entering into communion with the Apostles, the authoritative witnesses of the Church: “ . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have koinonia with us.” Communion with the Church is first. This is how we have communion with God and His Son: “ . . . and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (verse 3). This full communion with God, a reality inseparable from communion with the Church, is the framework of the forgiveness of sins. It is in communion with the Church that we are cleansed from our sins by the blood of Jesus. There is no such thing as the remission of sins apart from this communion with one another in the Church.

Thursday, December 28

Psalms 26 (Greek & Latin 25): In the measure that the voice of this psalm is the voice of innocence, it is a psalm most properly heard from the lips of Christ our Lord, who alone is truly innocent. The deepest sense of the psalm is Christological. The theme of innocence is, doubtless, what prompted the choice of this psalm for the feast of the Holy Innocents.

In addition, it also has a more general moral sense, for all Christians are called to live in some measure of innocence, in contrast to the world around us. Thus, St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (2:14, 15).

In the context of this epistle, Christian “blamelessness” is not an abstract or general ideal. It has to do, rather, with the avoidance of antipathy and unnecessary strife within the local church. Earlier in the same chapter the Apostle had exhorted that Macedonian parish to do nothing from ambition or conceit, but always to regard the interests of others, with fellowship, affection, and mercy (2:1–4); and later he will remind two women in that church of their specific duty with respect to such things (4:2).

In today’s psalm, as well, the innocence at issue is related to one’s relationship to the Church, particularly in the context of worship: “I have loved, O Lord, the splendor of Your house, and the dwelling place of Your glory. . . . My foot stands firm in integrity; in the churches will I bless You, O Lord.”

The aspired-to innocence of the Christian has chiefly to do, then, with his relationship to those with whom he worships in communion. It is to be determined by evangelical love. Thus, St. Paul prayed for another Macedonian congregation: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father” (1 Thess. 3:12, 13). Paul himself had given them the proper example: “You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe” (2:10). Once again, this innocence has to do with the behavior of Christians to one another.

In yet a deeper sense, however, Christian blamelessness is to be understood as far more than simply a moral quality. It is also a blamelessness before God, manifestly a state that none of us can attain on his own. Such innocence is the fruit of cleansing redemption, of which the Lord’s washing of the Apostles’ feet is perhaps the Bible’s most striking symbol: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8).

This Christian innocence is not simply a forensic verdict. We are more than merely declared innocent. We are made innocent. Christian blamelessness is not simply imputed; it is infused. Something actually happens to us; something real is effected in our souls. It truly makes us clean. The blood of Christ really washes us from our sins (cf. Rev. 1:5).

St. Paul wrote thus to the Colossians: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight” (Col. 1:21, 22). This, ultimately, is the innocence that we bring to God’s holy altar, that we may listen to the sound of His praise, and recount all His wonders, loving the splendor of His house, and the dwelling place of His glory.

But none of this is our doing. Even as we say to God (twice in this psalm), “I have walked in my innocence,” it is still necessary to add, “Redeem me and have mercy on me.” Innocence is not to be claimed except through repentance: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is from the altar of repentance that we are rendered innocent, purged by a coal so ardent that not even the fiery seraph dares to take it except with tongs.

Friday, December 29

John 1:19-28: It appears that John has conflated stories of two delegations, one from the Sadducees (priests and Levites), the other from the Pharisees. John found it easy to conflate the two interrogations, since both groups apparently asked very much the same questions—all of them about John’s identity. We should presume that John the Baptist was questioned on this point several times (cf. Luke 3:7-18).

Both groups are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that now appears for the first time in John’s Gospel. In most of the instances of this word in John, it designates Jesus’ enemies—the “Jews” as distinct from the Christians. That is to say, John’s use of this word appears to come from a period in which the Church was becoming an entity readily distinguished from the Synagogue. Although not consistently, we find the word “Jews” already use in this sense long before John. Indeed, it appears in the earliest book of the New Testament, twenty years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).

In John’s Gospel, this form of expression has become consistent. The “Jews” represent a religion that has set itself against Jesus the Messiah. In that context, the Church became “of age,” as it were; indeed, She has been expelled from Judaism and has begun to think of herself as a separate quid.

Revelation 21:9-27: All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.

John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).

The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.

We recall that one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square.