Friday, December 12
Revelation 16:10-21: The final three bowls of plagues stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.
The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses’ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).
There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the whole earth. The sixth bowl (verse 12), like the sixth trumpet, brings forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19). Finally, at both the seventh bowl and the seventh trumpet there are bolts of lightning, peals of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).
The sixth bowl of plagues here is a composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the “drying up” of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological “inversion” (in the sense used by John Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.
Verse 15 contains a well-known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).
The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is “hill of Megiddo.” Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.
Saturday, December 13
Revelation 17:1-18: John’s vision of the woman on the scarlet beast is better understood if one bears in mind certain features of his cultural and religious memory:
First, Israel’s prophetic tradition had fought against ritual prostitution, one of the standard religious practices of Canaanite religion, which Israel’s prophets for centuries struggled to replace. This tradition frequently spoke of idolatry under the metaphor of fornication, a metaphor further suggested by the prophetic perception of Israel as bound to God by a spiritual marriage. This perception is well documented in two prophets of the eighth century, Hosea and Isaiah.
Second, a century earlier Elijah had opposed the immoral cult of Baal, which was sponsored by the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. For this reason, Jezebel came to personify, in Israel’s memory, the witch, the wicked woman of loose morals. As in the instance of Naboth’s vineyard, as well as the death of many prophets, she was also remembered as a woman responsible for the shedding of innocent blood; Elijah complained that she had put a price on his own head. All of this has been on John’s mind; he has already described a certain woman at Thyatira as a Jezebel (2:20-23). The memory of Jezebel is certainly part of the picture of John’s image of the woman on the scarlet beast.
Third, Israel’s wisdom tradition, especially as found in the Book of Proverbs, spoke of Wisdom as a man’s true bride, in intimacy with whom he was to spend his whole life. Opposed to this bridal wisdom was the “loose woman,” Dame Folly, personified in the prostitute. This opposition undoubtedly arose from the simple observation that a good marriage to the right woman teaches a man, if he is teachable, how to conduct his life well and wisely, whereas that same man is brought to ruin if he consorts with a meretricious woman. The whore, then, was as bad a figure in Israel’s wisdom literature as she is in the prophetic literature.
Fourth, John seems also influenced by certain infamous and profligate women in the more recent history with which he was familiar. In the previous century, for example, there had been the famous femme fatale, Cleopatra, while in his own lifetime John knew of Herodias, whose success in murdering John the Baptist surpassed even Jezebel’s efforts against Elijah.
Even more recent to John’s time there was Berenice, the daughter born to Herod the Great in A.D. 28. If any woman of John’s era could be seen as a whore of international fame, it was Berenice, of whose activities we know chiefly from the historian Josephus. By the year 48 she had been widowed twice, once from her own brother, to whom she bore two children. For several years she lived in incest with another brother, Agrippa II, in whose company we find her at the trial of St. Paul in Acts 25:13,22-23; 26:30.
Shortly after this, Berenice was married to King Polemo of Cilicia, but she did not stay long with him. During this period of her life she was mocked by the poet Juvenal (Satires 6). Later on, according to Tacitus (Histories 2.2) and Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, “Titus” 7), she was the mistress of Titus, who was obliged to abandon her in order to become emperor, Dio Cassius tells us (66.15). When John described a “loose woman,” in short, none of his readers were at a loss to know what sort of woman he had in mind.
Fifth, the woman in this vision is certainly the personification of the city of Rome, sitting on her seven hills. John did not have to personify Rome; it was already done by Rome’s political endorsement of the goddess “Roma,” in whose honor John knew of temples at Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos. In the east, Roma had also been assimilated with certain local and traditional fertility goddesses.
The woman here is not only a whore; she is also a drinker of innocent blood, in the tradition of Jezebel and Herodias, the latter remembered especially in the Asian churches as the one responsible for the death of their beloved John the Baptist. Clothed in scarlet and adorned with gold, she appears as a sort of queen, whom John calls Babylon, much in the style of Jeremiah 51:12-17, a text that must be read in connection with John’s vision.
Sunday, December 14
Matthew 3:1-12: Unlike the gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew portrays John the Baptist as proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom (3:2). In thus regarding the preaching of John as the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 11:13), Matthew’s perspective matches that of the earliest apostolic proclamation (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37).
Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were two distinct groups, often hostile to one another, Matthew here lumps them together (verse 7) for the first of five times. They are mentioned together because of their common opposition to Jesus. In this text, John is giving them an initial warning to repent.
The tense and mode used in this warning to repent are the aorist imperative, which means “repent” in the sense, not of continuing action, but of decisive action: “Do it!” It is the decisive conversion John has in mind, rather than an attitude or habit.
Even as an act of decision, however, the grace of repentance is not necessarily a once-saved-always-saved sort of thing. This truth is especially borne out in Revelation, where in all four instances the command “Repent!” is spoken to believers themselves, specifically the Christians in the churches at Ephesus, Pergamos, Sardis, and Laodicea (2:5,16; 3:3,19). When Christians start to think and act like unbelievers they, too, must be summoned to repentance, and exactly the same form of the command covers both cases.
Revelation 18:1-8: This chapter deals with the city of sin, Babylon. It is not a prophecy of the downfall of Rome, such as that of A.D. 410 for instance, but an affirmation of hope for the downfall of what the pagan Roman Empire stood for.
In this vision a bright angel is seen; the very earth is illumined by his brightness. He appears with a message of concern for everyone who suffers oppression. His message (verse 2) is a direct quotation from Isaiah 21:9, and the imagery reminds us of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. The overthrow of this city is related to its place in the world of economics and commerce (verse 3), which John sees to be idolatrous (cf. Colossians 3:5).
John’s complaint against the economic and commercial idolatry of his time should be regarded against the background of the Bible’s prophetic literature, especially the prophecies of Amos and Isaiah, who spoke out frequently against the unjust practices of the business world that they knew: price fixing, monopoly, widespread unemployment, and so forth. Actually, such considerations are among the most common in the Bible.
John’s exhortation is that the believers get out of Babylon (verse 4), which is a direct quotation from Jeremiah 51:45. In that latter text the Jews were exhorted to flee Babylon so as not to share in that ancient city’s peril. “Going out of” a place in order not to share its destruction is a theme that appears rather often in Holy Scripture. One thinks of Noah and his sons “getting out” by building the Ark, for instance. Lot and his family are led out of Sodom by the angels, and the Israelites flee Egypt, and so forth. In Chapter 12 the woman in heaven was given two eagle’s wings so that she could flee to the desert, and in the gospels Jesus tells His disciples to flee Jerusalem prior to its destruction. The spiritual message in all this is that those who belong to Christ must put some distance between themselves and those elements of existence that are inimical to man (cf. John 17:6,11,14-16).
Monday, December 15
Luke 3:1-6: The significance of John’s ministry with respect to the Gospel prompted Luke to introduce the Baptist’s appearance with considerable solemnity, fixing its setting within general history:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into the whole region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3:1-4).
Although we learn some few details of John’s moral and social teaching from Matthew (3:7-9) and Luke (3:10-17), most of the New Testament’s interest in John is based on his relationship to Jesus (Mark 1:7-8; John 1:29-34; 3:26-30; Acts 18:25-26; 19:3-4).
All the New Testament sources speak of Jesus’ superiority to John, and only Luke indicates that Jesus and John were biologically related through their mothers (Luke 1:36).
Psalm 41 (Greek & Latin 42): In our consideration of the earthly life and work of Jesus, it is important not to separate into distinct categories the different components of the picture. It would be easy to think of each of the four Gospels as composed of two separable parts: (1) the earthly ministry of Jesus, with its teaching and miraculous healings; (2) the suffering and death of Jesus. Such a categorization would be easy, but it could also be inaccurate and misleading.
First, all of the Lord’s earthly ministry is directed to, and preparatory for, the drama of His saving Passion. While this is clear in all four Gospels, it is probably most apparent in Mark, where the Lord very early refers to his coming death (2:20), and the plot of his enemies to kill him follows almost immediately (3:6), providing the somber backdrop for the whole story.
Second, the compassion of our Lord throughout his earthly ministry, and most particularly his seeking out of sinners, is of whole cloth and single weave with the ensuing account of how He laid down His life to redeem sinners from their sins. The single theme in each Gospel is the redemptive mercy of Christ our Lord, whether exhibited in his teaching, or in his many healings, or in the shedding of His blood. It is all a single story.
By way of illustrating this unity of theme, we may observe how a single passage from Isaiah (53:4—“He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” [LXX]) was interpreted by 1 Peter 2:24 to refer to the Lord’s suffering on the Cross, and by Matthew 8:16, 17 to refer to the Lord’s healing of the diseased and the driving out of demons. These are not separate, nor separable, things. The Lord’s teaching and healings are not, as it were, “moral aspects” of his character, essentially unrelated to the Cross, but components of his one redemptive work, aspects of the single truth that “Jesus saves.”
This psalm, speaking of both aspects of the earthly life of Christ our Lord, likewise maintains their unity of theme. It begins with the Lord’s compassion for the poor and sick:
Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the time of trouble. The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, and he will be blessed on the earth. You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The Lord will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed.
This is not simply a moral theme, as it were, but a matter of the divine salvation, for right away the psalm goes on to describe Christ’s compassionate assumption of our sinful condition—the identification of the Sinless One with sinners: “I said: ‘Lord, be merciful to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’” Here we have the voice of the one of whom St Paul said: “For He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Christ’s compassion for the poor and the infirm is not simply a moral quality of his character, so to speak. It is of a piece with that love that compelled him to lay down his life for sinners, paying the price for their return to God. The voice of Psalm 41, then, is that of Christ our Lord, and its context is his saving Passion.
Tuesday, December 16
Luke 1:1-4: Both Luke’s Gospel (1:3) and the Book of Acts (1:1) are addressed to a man named Theophilus, whom Luke calls “most excellent” (kratistos). This honorific adjective, which in antiquity a person might use when approaching someone of a higher social class than himself, was deemed especially appropriate for addressing government officials. Indeed, Luke himself provides three examples of this usage: the letter of Lysias to the governor Felix (Acts 23:26), an address to the same man by Tertullus (24:3), and St. Paul’s speech to the governor Festus (26:25). It is not surprising, then, that many interpreters of Holy Scripture think Theophilus was a Roman political figure. This is an attractive and likely suggestion.
Many of these same biblical interpreters go on to contend that Theophilus was perhaps a sympathetic Roman ruler, but still a pagan, whom Luke was endeavoring to persuade of the truth of the gospel. They argue, in other words, that Luke’s intent in these two books was largely apologetic, rather much like Paul arguing his case before Festus and Agrippa (26:2–23). These exegetes believe that Luke was thus recommending the merits of the Christian faith to the official Roman world as represented in Theophilus.
One may mention two reasons for believing that this line of interpretation is not very likely. First, though the Book of Acts does contain several apostolic speeches of an apologetic nature, Luke’s two works on the whole are not marked by the directness and simplicity normally characteristic of an apologetic case. As many of those same biblical interpreters have shown, Luke’s thought and style are theologically very complex and subtle. He was clearly directing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to mature believers already inside the Church.
Second, Theophilus himself was certainly no pagan, because Luke explicitly mentions his having been “catechized” (katechetheis, Luke 1:4). This expression means that Theophilus had already received the normal basic instruction given within the Christian Church (1 Corinthians 14:19; Galatians 6:6). His experience in this respect was doubtless identical to that of Apollos, who also was “catechized” by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:25).
The basic catechesis among Christians was essentially oral rather than literary. Indeed, this is indicated even by the etymology of the word “catechesis”: kata-echo, “by way of echo,” an expression suggesting much recourse to repetition. The fundamental teaching in the Church was to have an echo quality, involving a generous amount of “repeat after me.” Truly, this is how the gospel itself is handed on to each new generation of believers: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Catechesis is thus no place for innovation and experiment.
Nonetheless, the New Testament also indicates that deeper explorations and more detailed explanations were provided for Christians who had already been catechized in the basics. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, clearly distinguishing between these two types of teaching (5:12–6:2), says, “let us go on to perfection.”
Similarly, it was Luke’s intention to provide Theophilus with a deeper, more detailed, and “perfect understanding” of the doctrines of the faith, “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2–3). It was to furnish this further instruction that Luke composed his Gospel and the Book of Acts.
Luke had in mind, of course, that these books would be read by other Christians besides Theophilus, and we would surely be mistaken if we imagined these books as intended for a private library. On the contrary, both works were composed for the very purpose which, in fact, they have always served in the Church, namely, the public proclamation of God’s Word within the church’s worship. Indeed, both books make pointed references to God’s people assembled for worship.
Wednesday, December 17
Luke 1:5-25: The Angel Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke, is sent to make two announcements—the first to the priest Zacharias in Jerusalem, and the other to the virgin Mary in Nazareth, both of whom are told that they will soon become the parents of children miraculously conceived. Now among the several points of resemblance between these two stories is the detail that both Zacharias and Mary, upon receiving this message, requested some sort of explanation from Gabriel.
It is at this point that the two accounts go in quite different directions. To Mary’s request Gabriel gives an adequate and very reassuring response, whereas Zacharias’s request is not only denied, but he is punished for even making it!
The difference between the two cases is not hard to discern. Mary’s question—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (1:24)—is actually a request for further instruction. Since she is a virgin, and Gabriel is telling her she is about to become a mother, Mary really does need more information. Her question to Gabriel means something like “Tell me what I am supposed to do.” There is no arrogance here, nor doubt.
On the contrary, Mary’s attitude is summed up in her final words to
Gabriel: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be (fiat) to me according to your word” (1:38).
Such is clearly not the case with Zacharias. His question is a request
not for further instruction but for an explanation: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years” (1:18). To ask “How shall I know?” does not convey a spirit of faith and obedience, but a spirit of skepticism. Indeed, “How shall I know?” is entirely an epistemological question. Even as he offers incense in God’s house, Zacharias is a doubter.
The gravity of Zacharias’s doubt is rendered more obvious if we consider it in contrast to Abraham’s response to an identical promise. Both married to women beyond childbearing years, Abraham and Zacharias were each told that his wife would bear him a son. These sons would be “children of promise,” conceived by God’s special intervention. Zacharias very well knew the story of Abraham, but still he insisted, “How shall I know this?”
In punishment for such arrogance, Zacharias is struck speechless for the next nine months and eight days, thus given an opportunity to ponder the serious nature of his offense. He must repent. If he is to become a fit father for John the Baptist, than whom there is no one greater among those born of women (7:28), Zacharias has much to learn about the ways of God.
Until he repents, the doubting Zacharias strikes one as the “thoroughly modern man,” far less concerned with what he knows than with how he can know it. Burdened with an excessive, even morbid, preoccupation with the psychology of knowledge, modern man no longer seems sure of knowing anything at all. In this respect Zacharias bears some resemblance to Descartes, the philosopher chiefly responsible for introducing the intentional, systematic cultivation of doubt as the basis of the philosophical pursuit. Doubting everything possible to doubt,
Descartes concluded that he knew for certain only that he was thinking, and from his thinking he went on to demonstrate (but only to himself!) his existence. He arrived, that is, at the Self, the first single reality not subject to doubt.
Thursday, December 18
Luke 1:26-38: Nine months before Christmas, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This was the inaugural day of the Sarkosis, the “enfleshing” of God’s Word. Since we speak English, we are more familiar with the Latin equivalent of Sarkosis—Incarnatio.
With respect to this mystery, those who wrote with authority for the faith of the Church have always been fond of juxtaposing this word, in either language, with another term. Thus, the word sarkosis is habitually joined with theosis; incarnatio is paired with deificatio. The purpose of the Incarnation is man’s “deification.”
This rhetorical pairing is very standard in the history of the Church. One finds it everywhere. I propose for now, however, to limit these reflections to the way Incarnation and Deification are paired in the theology of the 6th century theologian, Maximus the Confessor.
For Maximus, God’s plan of divine Providence (pronoia) was no afterthought. In Creation itself the Word’s Incarnation and man’s deification were already determined:
Looking toward this very goal, God brought forth the essences of the things that exist—pros touto to telos aphoron tas ton onton ho Theos paregagen ousias.
For Maximus this relationship between Incarnation and deification lay at the root, not only of Creation, but also of the whole of Sacred Scripture. It is revealed, he said, to those initiated into the Cross and Resurrection of the Savior. In a very dense reflection Maximus wrote,
The mystery of the Word’s embodying (ensomatosis) has the power (dynamis) of all enigmas and types in the Scriptures, and the understanding (episteme) of creatures, whether visible or perceived with the mind. And he that knows the mystery of the Cross and grave also knows the defining reasons (logoi) of these things. But he that is initiated (myetheis) into the unspeakable power of the Resurrection knows the goal (skopos) God established even as He brought forth all things.
According to Maximus this understanding of Redemption is not based on a philosophical, pre-baptismal evaluation of sin, but on the fullness of the Christian revelation, “the mystery according to Christ.”
A theologically adequate answer to the question “Why Incarnation?” is given to the Church, not as a point determined by philosophy or apologetics, but by the sacramental initiation into the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. It is inseparable, therefore, from the Christian understanding of Creation and the Sacred Scriptures. A theological grasp of sin requires that we begin, not with how it allegedly affects God, but how truly it affects man. What is the deprivation caused by sin? The sharing in the life of God, which is the true human destiny.
Man is a finite being, for whom God plans an infinite destiny. Consequently, man’s existence was incomplete—even in Creation—inasmuch as God intended for him a sharing in His own nature. In order, therefore, that human beings could participate in the divine nature, God’s Son assumed human nature and historical existence.
When we speak of the Word’s Incarnation, we must consider not only the assumption of our nature, but also the assumption of our whole existence. That is to say, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, not simply at the moment of The Virgin’s fiat, but at every moment of our Lord’s earthly life. All of the “Christological moments” were revelatory and redemptive. The Word’s incarnate existence took place in time and through the normal processes of human growth and experience. All the stories in the Gospels, then, and not just their opening chapters, are revelatory of the Incarnation.
Our first example of man’s deification is in the woman in whom the Incarnation came to be. Her consent to the enfleshing of God—a consent that continued to transform her life—became the medium of her own deification. No other life on earth is so closely joined to the life of Christ.
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.”