Friday, December 21

Luke 1:39-56: Luke’s earliest and arguably most significant use of this expression, “full of the Holy Spirit,” refers to John the Baptist, of whom Gabriel tells Zacharias: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).

Furthermore, Elizabeth credits this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).

And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit. This point is emphatic.

The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, evlogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68).

Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).

Saturday, December 22

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.

Gog was already well known to readers of Ezekiel 38-39, who would scarcely have been surprised to hear of him, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past. The Hebrew name Gog (or Gug) corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 644. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of Herodotus.

The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like the other names in these chapters of Ezekiel, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references. Thus understood, Gog and his forces appear here in Revelation 20. “Magog” appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” Here in Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog, much as, elsewhere in the book, one beast shares his authority with the other beast in 13:4.)

Sunday, December 23

Psalms 29 (Greek & Latin 28): The setting of this tempest is a giant cedar forest, whose overarching branches assume the contours of a vaulted temple, and through this lofty sylvan shrine the booming voice of God comes pounding and roaring with a terrifying majesty, accompanied by the swishing of the wind and rain, while flashing bolts of lightning split the very trunks of the towering trees: “In His temple everything speaks glory.”

This is a psalm about God’s “glory” (kavod ) and “holiness” (with a couple of plays on the corresponding Hebrew root qodesh—note, for instance, the “wilderness of Kadesh). In any language, this is most certainly a psalm to be prayed out loud, allowing its words to come rumbling through the soul. Recited properly, it becomes a literary extension and re-living of that ancient storm which was the psalmist’s original inspiration.

This is a very active piece of poetry. After calling on the sons of God to bring Him glory and honor, the psalmist begins to describe that glory as it is revealed in the storm. Calling all God’s sons to “give glory to His name,” the psalmist immediately speaks of “the voice of the Lord upon the waters. The God of glory thunders.” This is the same thunderous voice that in the Gospel of John tells of the glory of God’s name: “‘Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered” (John 12:28, 29).

Revelation 21:1-18: In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.

Monday, December 24

Matthew 1:1-17: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break 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.

Hebrews 1:1-14: The historical perspective of the prologue of Hebrews is identical to that of the parable of the vine growers, which is found in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. In both cases the sending of the Son comes as the climax of a lengthy series of diverse missions dispatched to the vineyard. The former sending of the “prophets” in Hebrews corresponds to the repeated efforts of the Lord of the vineyard to gain the attention of the vine growers, who rejected the messengers, “beating some and killing some” (Mark 12:5).

In both places, there is an emphasis on how often God made those overtures. The first three words in Hebrews, polymeros kai polytropos, are better rendered with some attention to the repeated prefix poly-, which indicates “many.” The “at many times and in many ways” of the English Standard Version accomplishes this. The sense of repetition is also found in the Gospel parable. Several servants are sent, indeed “many” (pollous—Mark 12:5), even “more than the first” (pleionas ton proton—Matthew 21:36).

In this historical sequence, the Son comes “last” (eschatos). Mark’s version (12:6) reads, “Last of all He sent His beloved Son” (hyion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton). Hebrews, likewise, says that God “has in these last days (ep’ eschatou ton hemeron touton) spoken to us by a Son [en hyio].” Thus, the sending of the Son, both in the Gospel parable and in Hebrews, is God’s eschatological act (cf. also Galatians 4:4), bringing Old Testament history to a dramatic climax in the Son’s redemptive Death and Resurrection.

Tuesday. December 25

Luke 2:1-20: All seven of the Church’s Ecumenical Councils have been concerned with a single question: “Who is Jesus?” Indeed, according to the Gospels Jesus Himself posed this question several times in various forms: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” (Matthew 22:42)

The reason this question is important has to do with certain claims of Jesus, which indicate that the answer touches on the nature of God. When Jesus declares, for instance, that He and the Father are one (John 10:30), when He affirms that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (14:6), when He claims that those who see Him see the Father (14:9)—in all such assertions Jesus of Nazareth forces Himself on the conscience of every human being who has ever lived.

The radical nature of these claims implies that their validity concerns the very being of God and, hence, the meaning of human existence. If these assertions are true, then there really is no God except the God revealed as the Father of this Palestinian carpenter.

This is extremely important, because it implies that all other religions—even if they are monotheistic—are intrinsically idolatrous. Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no access to the true God. The others are but thieves and robbers (10:8). Every competitive religion is idol worship. What, after all, is idolatry but the worship of a false divinity? If the true God is known only in Jesus, then only Jesus can save mankind from bondage to false gods. Truly, if Jesus of Nazareth is who He says He is, then He is history’s only safeguard against idolatry. It is either Jesus or the idols. There is no other choice.

Our Holy One

When we speak of Christ, among all human beings, as “alone holy,” the expression is not one of simple degree. It is not a quantitative assertion, declaring that Christ, being holier than the rest of us, is said to be the “only saint.” He is not only holier than the rest of us. He is holy in a sense very different from the rest of us. His is not a derived holiness. It is the very holiness of God, “for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

If Christ alone is holy, it is also His glory that fills the earth. “The whole earth is full of His glory,” chanted the Seraphim. Holiness is God’s glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God’s holiness openly revealed. Hence, it is the holiness of Christ that causes the glory of God to shine forth from His face (John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4,6; 2 Peter 1:17-19). It is His face that conceals and reveals the mystery.

Our Mediator

Taking seriously the claims of Jesus, the New Testament four times speaks of Him as our “Mediator,” our Mesites. Thus, the Apostle Paul calls Him the “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5), while the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, refers to Jesus as “the Mediator of the new covenant” (9:15; 12:24), the “Mediator of a better covenant” (8:6). Jesus is God’s Son who assumed our humanity and became thereby the one Mediator between God and Man. This is to say that in the person of Jesus both God’s nature and man’s are fixed forever in a unity that prompts us to speak of the God-Man. He joins both forms of existence in His own person.

Jesus’ mediation means that He is both God rendered visible and Man rendered acceptable. For our salvation, the Church insists, He must be both. Were He only a man, His death on the cross would be unavailing. Were He only God, His resurrection from the dead would have no significance. If we are truly redeemed, He must be both.

Our Brother

In the Incarnation God’s Son became our brother. He affirmed this truth when He said to Mary Magdalene, “Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). “I will declare Your name to My brethren,” says He to the Father in Hebrews 2:12.

Most of all, however, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community. It is not an assembly of self-made individuals, but the communion of the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, who will be judged, at the end of history, on the basis of how they have treated one another.

Wednesday, December 26

Acts 6:8—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, that is to say, 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.

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).

In this story, 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.

Having bitterly denounced the Jews in his testimony before the Sanhedrin (7:51–53), Stephen finishes his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors (7:59–60). Luke thus takes great care
to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (Luke
23:34, 46), as Irenaeus of Lyons early noted (Against the Heresies 3.12.13).

Dante’s portrayal of the scene is especially memorable:

Then I saw people incited in a fire of wrath
to kill a young man [giovinetto] by stoning, loudly
calling out to one another, ‘Kill him, kill him!’ [Martira, martira!]
And him I saw, bowed down by the death
that already laid him prone upon the earth,
but he ever made with his eyes a door into heaven,
praying to the high Lord [all’alto Sire], in so great a struggle,
that He would pardon his persecutors,
with a gaze deserving of mercy (Purgatorio 15:106–114).

Thursday, December 27

1 John 1:1—2:2: In general, the word “we” has two possible meanings. First, “we” may mean “us” as distinct from “you.” Second, it may signify “you and I.”

We find both senses of “we” in the first chapter of the First Epistle of John. Indeed, this chapter is divided exactly in half by these two uses of the word, which appears at least once in every single verse.

Let us begin by looking at the first half of 1 John 1, carefully noting “we” each time we find it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1:1-5).

The first-person plural in these verses does not mean “you and I.” It signifies, on the contrary, “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance “we” refers to the authority of the apostolic witness, the genuine transmission of the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The “we” is the apostolic authority testifying to the rest of the Church: “we have heard from Him and declare to you.”

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.” The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “. . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).

In the second half of 1 John 1, however, the sense of John’s “we” changes significantly. It no longer means the apostolic witness but refers, rather, to “you and I.” It is no longer the “we” of authority, but the shared “we” of common experience. Indeed, the “we” of these five verses can even be called hypothetical, inasmuch as John’s whole argument consists of a series of “we” (“you and I”) suppositions. An “if” clause appears in every verse and always with a “we.”

Thus, “[1] If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we ie and do not practice the truth. [2] But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. [3] If we say that we have no in, 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 ay that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

Whereas the first half of 1 John 1 is about the authority of the apostolic witness, the second half is mainly concerned with the forgiveness of sins. The word “we” in this respect places forgiveness in a social context. According to John, the forgiveness of sins is not set in an individual relationship between the believer and God. On the contrary, the forgiveness of sins involves a “we” in the shared sense of “you and I.” That is to say, it is situated in the context of the Church, that society formed by the authority of the apostolic witness

Communion with the Church, for John, is essential to forgiveness. Membership in the Church is how we have communion with God and His Son: } . . . and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” This full communion with God and His Son, a reality inseparable from communion with the Church, is the framework of the forgiveness of sins: “we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

It is in communion with one another 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 of the church.

Thus, John’s two senses of the word “we” are complementary, beginning with authority and ending with communion and forgiveness.

Friday, December 27

Matthew 2:1-23 and 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 oncerned 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.

There is an important parallelism between the story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.

There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however; for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18 [19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

Although the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that ‘declare the glory of God’, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

By way of prophetic type in the Book of Genesis, it was the dreaming of a man named Joseph that originally brought the Chosen People into Egypt. That prophetic type is fulfilled in today’s Gospel reading, when another Joseph has a dream that results in his taking the Chosen People back to Egypt. According to today’s reading from Exodus 1:8-22), it was in Egypt that the little boys were sacrificed to the fears of a sinful king. This also happens in today’s Gospel.

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).