Friday, December 19

Luke 1:39-45: “Filled with the Holy Spirit” is a favorite expression of Luke, which he uses to describe Zacharias (Luke 1:67), Peter (Acts 4:8), Paul (9:17; 13:9, 52), Barnabas (11:24), and even the entire congregation at Jerusalem (Acts 4:31). This expression is especially prominent with respect to Stephen, who is several times described this way (Acts 6:3, 5, 10; 7:55).

Luke’s earliest and arguably most significant use of this expression 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 will credit 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).

Revelation 21:1-8: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.

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.

Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English.

During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”

Saturday, December 20

Psalms 55 (Greek & Latin 54): Here our Lord prays in the setting of his Passion:

For if an enemy had cursed me, I could have borne it; or if someone who hated me had boasted over me, I could have hidden myself from him. But it was you, a man with whom I was one in soul, my companion and intimate friend, who enjoyed pleasant meals with me; we walked in harmony together in the house of God.

The context of this psalm, then, is the Lord’s betrayal by someone with whom he had shared many a meal, even the miraculous loaves and fishes and, more recently, the Passover Seder, on the night before he died. We may see in this psalm, then, the Lord’s sentiments in the agony at Gethsemane, as he awaited the arrival of the treacherous friend who would betray him with a kiss and hand him over to His enemies. Judas was a “companion” in the strict sense of someone with whom he had shared “bread” (panis).

The Gospels suggest that this experience of treachery from a special friend was among the deepest sufferings sustained by the One who became like unto his brethren in all things save sin. If the story of Judas is narrated in all four canonical Gospels, as well as Acts, the earliest Christians must have thought it singularly important.

In each of the Gospels, moreover, Judas is identified as the betrayer precisely during the Last Supper—that is to say, in a context recognized to be eucharistic. Nor is it incidental that the first occasion at which our Lord spoke of the coming betrayal was at the end of his own lengthy discourse about eating his body and drinking his blood (John 6:70, 71).

Revelation 21:9-21: 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, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).

Sunday, December 21

Luke 1:57-66: Our reading of Luke’s Gospel today, illumined by our reading of the last chapter of Malachi, brings us now to the birth of John the Baptist, about whom certain reflections suggest themselves.

First, John the Baptist was a distinctly cultured man, in the primitive meaning of that participle: He grew in a setting that encouraged growth. In fact, Luke says a great deal about the roots of culture. John was a Jewish priest by inheritance and blood. His mother was from the tribe of Levi, and of his father we read that he was a priest of “the division of Abijah.” He was the heir of a great spiritual legacy, and very early in life he began to assimilate that inheritance.

How early? According to Luke he was in his sixth month of gestation. Even at that age, however, he had already assimilated enough of his religious inheritance that he leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of the Son of God she carried.

That is to say, even three months before he was born, and without the slightest ability to reflect critically on his existence, he was already a believer. He already had faith, a faith proportionate to his age and condition. He was in possession of an infant’s faith, the only kind of faith of which he was capable. This is why, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised as a member of God’s people.

This infant faith has been essential to the history of the Christian Church, because it is a fact that the great majority of Christians did not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. Most Christians baptize the infant members of the Church for exactly the same reason that John the Baptist was circumcised eight days after his birth. That is to say, such children are already believers, just as John the Baptist was a believer.

In the case of John the Baptist, moreover, this faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.

In addition, John the Baptist was a man of character. We observe that John was never shaky about who he was. The lines of his identity were firmly in place: he had what the Greeks called “character.” He was severely tried over the course of his life, but he seems never to have had an identity crisis. He appears in the Gospels as a man of unusual self-confidence—enough self-confidence to call his whole generation to repentance! He was not afraid of the religious authorities in Judaism, and he was not the least intimidated by the political authorities that would eventually take his life.

He held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for his beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.

Monday, December 22

Revelation 22:1-13: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river, twelve in number, obviously. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.

The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus (cf. John 4:7-15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8).

Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.

The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.

Revelation 22:12-21: This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for them. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.

In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).

Tuesday, December 23

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 Babyloniam 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.

Revelation 22:14-21: One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them and us” mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.

Wednesday, December 24

Hebrews 1:1-14: This association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7), is one of the striking points of contact between the gospel parable of the vine growers and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The latter work begins, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son [hyios], whom he hath appointed heir [kleronomos] of all things”(1:1-2 KJV, emphasis added).

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” (pollousMark 12:5), even “more than the first” (pleionas ton protonMatthew 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.

This historical approach to Christology is important. Even before speaking of the eternity of God’s Son (“the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person”), the author first relates that Son to the message conveyed “in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.” The Son of God proclaimed in this work is also a human being. More specifically, in fact, He is a Jew. This Son not only became man; He also became a Jew. His experience as a human being—all those things identified as “the days of his flesh” (5:7)—was specifically Jewish. God’s Son assumed our humanity in a particular race and took on the history of that race. He came to the earth and learned the ways of men by becoming part of Jewish history.

Thursday, December 25
Hebrews 2:1-18: In these verses 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).

Friday, December 26
Matthew 2:1-15: There is an important parallelism between the Christmas 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.

These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star-watchers. “For we have seen His star in the East,” they affirm, “and have come to worship [or adore] Him” (Matthew 2:2).

Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto Bethlehem, that “house of the Bread” (for such is the meaning of “Bethlehem”), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.

This adoration takes place within the “house,” which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him” (Matthew 2:11).

That is to say, when the Magi entered the house, they found what we all find portrayed on a central icon up near the altar, the mother holding and presenting the Child for the adoration of those who have followed the star into the house of the Bread.

For this reason, it was entirely proper that the Apostles, as they were being commissioned for the great work of universal evangelism, should manifest in their very posture the Christ-ward adoration which is the final goal of that evangelism (Matthew 28:9).

Finally, while 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.