Friday, November 28
Luke 23:6-12: Alone among the four Evangelists, Luke tells the story of Jesus’ judicial appearance before Herod Antipas on the day of the Crucifixion (verses 6-12). This is the same Herod whom Luke mentions closer to the beginning of his Gospel, at the inauguration of the ministry of John the Baptist (3:1). Thus, in Luke’s literary construction, these two references to Herod Antipas serve to frame Jesus’ public ministry, which, as that evangelist was careful to note, extended “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22).
Luke also tells how the animosity of Herod Antipas toward Jesus (cf. Luke 13:31) was later directed against Jesus’ disciples (cf. Acts 12:1, 11). Indeed, Luke regarded the collusion of Antipas and Pontius Pilate, which was sealed at Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:12), as the fulfillment of David’s prophecy (Psalm 2:1-2) of the gathering of the world’s leaders “against the Lord and against His Christ” (Acts 4:25-27). ?It is significant that Luke, when he tells us of Jesus’ appearance before Antipas on Good Friday, does more than state the bare event. He goes into some detail about how “Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate” (23:11). This description implies that Luke had access to an eyewitness account of the event, an event at which, as far as we know, no Christian disciple was present. The historian rightly inquires how Luke knew all this.
Moreover, in addition to these external items of the narrative, Luke even addresses the motive and internal dispositions of Antipas, saying that “he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him” (23:8). Once again the historian properly wonders how Luke was privy to these sentiments. What was his source for this material, a source apparently not available to the other evangelists?
Luke himself provides a hint toward answering this historical question when he mentions a certain Chuza, described as a “steward” of Herod Antipas. The underlying Greek noun here is epitropos, the same word that refers to the vineyard foreman in Matthew 20:8, but in the Lukan context it more likely points to a high political office, such as a chief of staff.
It does not tax belief to imagine that such a person would be present at Jesus’ arraignment before Herod Antipas. Indeed, this would be exactly the sort of person we would expect to be present on that occasion, when Herod was in Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Furthermore, Chuza is also the sort of person we would expect to be familiar with Herod’s own thoughts, sentiments, and motives with respect to Jesus. ?And how did Chuza’s information come to Luke? Most certainly through Chuza’s wife, Joanna, whom Luke includes among the Galilean women who traveled with Jesus and the Apostles, providing for him “from their substance” (Luke 8:3).
Joanna, whom Luke is the only evangelist to mention by name, was surely his special channel of information that only he, among the evangelists, seems to have had. Married to a well-placed political figure in the Galilean court, Joanna was apparently a lady of some means, who used her resources to provide for the traveling ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. Acting in this capacity, she must have been very well known among the earliest Christians. Only Luke, however, speaks of her by name, a fact that seems to indicate that he had interviewed her in the composition of his Gospel.
We can guess that Joanna’s adherence to Jesus was not without its difficulties for her domestic life. Here she was, the wife of a high political official, providing support for someone who would die as a political criminal. ??Her loyalty was supremely rewarded, however, because the risen Lord saw fit to number Joanna among the Holy Myrrhbearers, those surprised women who “came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared,” found the stone rolled away from the tomb, prostrated before the two herald angels of the Pascha, and subsequently “told these things to the apostles.” One suspects that Joanna also had a thing or two to tell her husband Chuza later that day.
Saturday, November 29
Revelation 8:1-13: The number four is the traditional human number; thus, man divides his world into four directions: a front, a back, and two sides. He speaks of “four winds,” the “four corners of the earth,” and so forth. The divine number is three, because it is perceived to be the most stable. The triangle is the only stable geometric figure, the angles of which cannot be altered without changing the length of its sides. Similarly, the tripod is the only completely stable object to stand on a plane; anyone sitting on a wobbly chair knows that chairs seem to prefer three legs to four!
Any combination of three and four, therefore, represents the union of God and man, which is perfection. Thus, the multiplication of three and four yields the sacred number twelve, which appears in many contexts in Holy Scripture, including the Book of Revelation. If three and four are added, the resultant sacred number is seven. The symbolic use of both numbers, twelve and seven (one being the number of months in the year, and the other being the number of days in the week), is found ubiquitously in Holy Scripture.
The number seven, in fact, provides an important structural element throughout much of Revelation. Thus, there were seven letters to seven churches (Chapters 2 and 3), followed by a scroll with seven seals that needed to be opened. The opening of that seventh seal, in turn, will introduce the seven trumpets, which will be followed by seven bowls of plagues.
In the present text, the immediate response to the opening of the seventh seal is silence in heaven for thirty minutes (verse 1), while the angels with the seven trumpets prepare themselves (verses 2,6), and the throne room is ritually incensed (verse 3). The silence that accompanies the incensing provides a time for prayers to be offered, the ascending of which is symbolized in the rising incense smoke (cf. Luke 1:9-10; Exodus 30:1-9; Talmud, “Tamid” 3.1). In the temple ritual of Israel, it is likely that thirty minutes was required for the priest to make the rounds of the temple with his censer, though it sometimes took longer (cf. Luke 1:21).
We should also observe here that the altar of incense is the only altar in heaven (6:9; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7); there is no altar of holocausts in heaven because the purpose of that altar in Israel’s ancient temple was fulfilled by the Cross, where the definitive Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.
The trumpets, moreover, will be sounded by the seven “angels of the Presence” (cf. Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19). The trumpets themselves are best understood in two points of reference: First, there were seven trumpets sounded in the procession around the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6. It is useful to bear in mind that the Ark of the Covenant was borne at the end of that procession, after the seven trumpets. Similarly, at the end of the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant will once again appear (cf. 11:15,19).
Second, that event of the fall of Jericho was given a constant liturgical expression in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple by the sounding of the trumpets (1 Chronicles 15:24; Nehemiah 12:4-42). Almost any time anything of significance happened in the worship at the temple, such as prayers, sacrifices, and so forth, the trumpets were sounded. Thus, the blare of the trumpet symbolized Israel’s constant and sustained worship of God. This is also the function of the trumpets here in Revelation 8.
The blowing of the seven trumpets parallels the opening of the seven seals in several close particulars. Thus, the first four trumpets form a unified whole (verses 7-12), as did the first four seals (6:1-8). As in the case of the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-17), the fifth and sixth trumpets will be expressed in a longer and separate narrative (9:1-21). Finally, a pair of visions will precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet (10:1—11:14), as another pair preceded the opening of the seventh seal (7:1-17).
In addition, by introducing various plagues upon the earth, the seven trumpets find another extensive parallel in the seven bowls of plague that will follow them. Finally, let us note that the plagues visited on the earth at the sounding of the trumpets, like the plagues visited on Egypt, do not touch those who, having been sealed, belong to God.
Sunday, November 30
Luke 23:26-38: Holy Scripture gives us no reason to think that Simon of Cyrene had been a believer in Christ before that day when Roman soldiers compelled him to assume the weight of the Holy Cross. That was the very beginning of his discipleship. He became, however, the model of those who follow Jesus to the place of His crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem (“as they came out,” says Matthew 27:32; “led Him out,” says Mark 15:20). Carrying Jesus’ cross, he shared in Jesus’ shame. Simon paid heed to that exhortation of the Epistle to the Hebrews which is addressed equally to us all: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (13:12-13).
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.”
As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.
Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11).
It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.
Monday, December 1
Luke 23:39-43: This thief seems to ask for so very little. Sensing that our
Lord is about to go to some destiny different from his own, he modestly pleads, “Remember me.” Ah, but “the grace shown is more abundant than the request made,” commented St. Ambrose. That very day the dying thief will be with Jesus.
Here the Sacred Text employs the very expression, with, habitually used by St. Paul to describe eternal life. Everlasting glory consists in being with the Lord (Romans 6:8; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:22–23; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 5:10).
It has been justly remarked that the good thief was canonized even before his death. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “The thief, after doing so many evil things, entered into Paradise before everyone else, because he did not become discouraged” (Homilies of Repentance 1.15).
Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people.
Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, “two hundred million” (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred thousand.
The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell. Both of these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but men’s hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:6.
Tuesday, December 2
Luke 23:44-49: A centurion is quoted in response to the death of Jesus in all three of these gospels, though the quotations are not identical. A close examination of the biblical text will show, in fact, that the variants themselves are significant, each of them conveying a meaning proper to the gospel in which it appears. In Luke’s account, where the centurion more modestly confesses, “Certainly this was a righteous Man” (23:47), he serves as the spokesman less for the Church than for the Roman Empire. The centurion delivers the final verdict, as it were, in Jesus’ trial.
Although that earlier Roman official, Pontius Pilate, repeatedly admitted that he found no fault in Jesus (23:4,14,23), he condemned Him nonetheless. Rome’s final word on Jesus in Luke, however, comes from the Roman that watched Him die. Even as he announced Jesus’ innocence, says Luke, “he glorified God” (23:47). This glorification of God at the end of Jesus’ life matches that at its beginning: “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (2:20).
Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll, and the two faithful witnesses.
In the first of these, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, an image also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).
With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.
The scroll the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, a detail suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).
Wednesday, December 3
Revelation 11:1-10: In our reading of the Book of Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, “a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word “year” for “time,” the meaning of the expression is clear: “three and a half years,” or forty-two months, or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel 9:27).
Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5). John’s contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the Christian Church, of which Jerusalem’s temple was a type and foreshadowing.
There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This inviolability is conferred by being sealed with the sign of the living God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John is told to take the measure (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).
The literary background of John’s vision of the two witnesses is Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet has in mind the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the worship in God’s house. Those two figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
“Two” witnesses are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order “to make the case” (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who afflicted Egypt with plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is John’s way of asserting that the Christian Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against false gods. She will destroy God’s enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses (Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12).
When the monster from the abyss kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seem to have triumphed (verse 10). Nevertheless, they will be carried up to heaven, again like Moses (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), because the victorious Lamb has the final word.
Thursday, December 4
Matthew 23:1-13: This chapter of Matthew commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees. It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized in this chapter.
Revelation 11:11-19: With respect to the prophets Moses and Elijah, whose outlines appear in this vision as symbolic representations, we know that the “return” of both men was expected by John’s contemporaries (cf. John 1:21; Mark 6:15; 8:20). Both men did “return” at our Lord’s transfiguration; indeed, in Mark 9 and Matthew 17, the question of the return of Elijah is precisely the point of the conversation that immediately follows the Transfiguration.
When the two witnesses ascend into heaven (verse 12), one tenth of the city falls (verse 13), the city in question still being “Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (verse 8). This one tenth of the city, calculated as seven thousand souls, is literally a tithe of the city’s population. Thus, the number of those who perish is a sort of direct reversal of the seven thousand who were saved in Elijah’s remnant (1 Kings 19:18).
Thus ends the second woe, which is the sixth trumpet (verse 14). The first six trumpets were warning blasts, whereas the seventh will be a kind of fanfare (verse 15).
In the hymn that follows the seventh trumpet (verses 17-18), we should especially observe that God’s wrath is salvific, a matter at which believers will rejoice, because God’s reign is established by His wrath. God is not a neutral observer of history. On the contrary, He is deeply biased on the side of the poor and oppressed. Some people in this world are poor and oppressed, because other people in this world worship false gods. In the biblical view, poverty and oppression are the results of idolatry, and this provokes God’s wrath. His wrath is against the false gods and their servants, and believers are summoned to rejoice in the victory of that wrath, because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Matthew 23:35-36).
As in the ancient procession around Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant appears after the seventh trumpet (verse 19).
Friday, December 5
Revelation 12:1-17: Though it is surely no myth, this awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. For example, there was the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which has usurped the reign of the sun, attempts to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its mother’s womb.
In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt has its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. Set’s plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (on an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set.
Similarly, Greek mythology describes the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 are rather striking. Both myths also touch on the subject of the illegitimate “usurper,” a theme Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth.
John’s vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a “sign,” an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like the sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second-magnitude beta, and omicron.
Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).
The serpent, of course, is the ancient dragon that is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) known from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.