Friday, December 2

Luke 22:24-30: The shameless dispute over rank among the Apostles, which Matthew (19:28; 20:25-28) and Mark (9:33-34; 10:41-45) place much earlier in the narrative sequence, is found during the Last Supper in Luke’s account. In this respect, Luke description of the disciples’ attitude during this meal resembles the account of it in John (13:1-20).

The proper answer to the question of apostolic rank is that it should never arise. This being the wrong question, any answer to it is necessarily the wrong answer. The ministry of the Christian Church is modeled, rather, on the example of Christ our Lord, who became the Servant of His people. In John’s account of the Last Supper this servant quality is illustrated by the Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet.

By placing this discussion during the Last Supper, Luke brings it into greater proximity to the Lord’s Passion, in which He does show Himself to be God’s Suffering Servant foretold in the Book of Isaiah. ??In verses 28-30 the Eucharistic table becomes the effective symbol of God’s table in the Kingdom, where these same Apostles, scandalously squabbling among themselves for rank, will be afforded places of prominence. They will receive such prominence because they have persevered with Jesus in His trials.

Psalms 81 (Greek & Latin 80): In the normal circumstances of our daily lives, the abrupt, loud blowing of a horn can serve as a notable stimulant to advertence, a feature that explains why we equip our automobiles, boats, and trains with such a device. This rousing quality of the horn is also the reason we sometimes introduce “events” with what is called a fanfare. Whatever the musical value of the thing, the shrill blast of a horn is likely to attract some measure of attention.

If, however, a number of other extraordinary, distracting phenomena are taking place at the same time, it is possible to miss even the loud sounding of a horn. Thus, when we read of all the marvels that accompanied Moses’ reception of the Law on Mount Sinai, it is altogether possible for us not to notice the sustained and sonorous wail of a ram’s horn. Nonetheless, it was not lost on the Israelites who were present (Ex. 19:16, 19) nor on the early Christian reader who commented on the “sound of a trumpet” that accompanied that event (Heb. 12:19).

Likewise, Psalm 81, prescribing the blowing of this ram’s trumpet in the context of liturgical worship, links this context to the singular events of the Exodus: “Rejoice in God our helper, raise an ovation to the God of Jacob. Raise the song and roll the drum; strum the dulcet lyre and play the lute. Intone the trumpet of the New Moon, the famed day of your feast. For a command is ordained unto Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob. He made it a statute to Joseph, when he went out of the land of Egypt and heard a tongue he did not know.”

Literary historians still debate which specific liturgical feast day formed the original context of Psalm 81, since trumpets seem to have been played on many of ancient Israel’s feast days (cf. Numbers 10:10). But this historical question is of no solid significance to the proper praying of this psalm. It suffices to know that our theme is the Exodus from Egyptian servitude.

All our prayer, after all, is the fruit of the Exodus. That is to say, all our worship of God is rooted in our deliverance from demonic slavery by His gracious redemptive hand. It is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6) that He has saved us. Of each of us, then, it is proper to say that God “unfettered his back from the burdens, and took from his hands the basket of bondage.”

Saturday, December 3

Luke 22:31-34: The dispute over rank among the Apostles shows how spiritually vulnerable they really are, and these next verses address that spiritual vulnerability.

The scene described here is found at the table of the Last Supper in Luke and John, whereas in Matthew and Mark it is narrated as taking place while Jesus walked with His disciples on the way to the Agony in the Garden. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the conversation was somewhat longer than is recorded in the Gospels and that it extended for some time, both in the upper room and after they left it.

In either setting the prediction of Peter’s denials is placed in the context of the Lord’s Supper and is included in all four Gospels as an exhortation to Christians with respect to the temptations that may befall them even while partaking of the Lord’s body and blood. Satan does not boycott the Eucharist.

In contemporary English (which makes no distinction between “thou” and “ye”), it is difficult to discern all the subtlety in these verses. The “you” in verse 31 is plural. That is to say, it is not only Peter that Satan desires to sift as wheat; it is all of the Apostles. Indeed, it is all Christians. Satan has “asked,” he has sought permission, to try them, just as he had formerly asked such permission with respect to Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). In the Lord’s Passion the disciples will be tried as Job was tried, and the Lord warns them of this in His words to Peter.

The “you” in verse 32, however, is singular, not plural. That is to say, it is Peter himself for whom the Lord prays. In fact, as the story goes on to show, Peter is the one most in danger, and Jesus foresees this. He also foresees Peter’s repentance, for which He prayed. In connection with this repentance, the Lord commands him to strengthen his brethren. Indeed, the story of Peter’s fall and repentance has been strengthening his brethren down to the present day.

Psalms 84 (Greek & Latin 83): This psalm commences on the note of longing: “How beloved Your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts. My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God.” Immediately, however, the tone is transformed into one of secure resting in God’s presence: “For the sparrow has found herself a haven, and the turtledove a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.” Sharing the psalmist’s view of its symbolic propriety, generations of both Jews and Christians have loved this ancient poetic record about Palestinian birds constructing their nests in the wall niches of Solomon’s temple. This is the endearing sight that prompts one to speak of “my King and my God.”

But Solomon’s famous construction, we know, was a figure passing away, for now “a greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). The true and lasting temple of God, the term of our longing and the abode of our rest, is Christ the Lord. He is “greater than the temple” (12:6). So in this psalm we pray: “Give regard, O God, our Protector, and gaze on the face of Your Christ.”

This image of Jesus as God’s true temple, which provides the proper Christological key to Psalm 84, is indicated in the Gospel of John. Fairly early in that Gospel, when Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple, the evangelist notes: “But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21). This body of Christ, in the Johannine context, is His resurrected flesh and blood, the permanent and even physical abiding place of God’s presence. John will say of heaven: “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22).

Sunday, December 4

Luke 1.26-36: The petition, “let it be done,” used in both the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer of Jesus in the Garden, is heard also in today’s reading from the Gospel, and this time on the lips of Mary at the annunciation of Gabriel: “Be it done unto me, according to thy word.”

The Holy Spirit is the active agent in the Incarnation, but this action is not forced on the young Galilean woman. Her assent and cooperation are required by the very nature of salvation. The most significant fact about Mary was her consent to God’s invitation. Absolutely everything else recorded in the four gospels depended on that consent. Without that human consent there was no salvation. Without Mary’s response to the angel, we would still be in our sins. Without Mary’s response to the angel, there would be no Sermon on the Mount, no walking on the water, no healing on the Sabbath.

Apart Mary’s response to the angel, the blind man of Jericho would still be blind, the widow’s son at Nain would still be dead, and Zacchaeus would never have climbed the sycamore tree. The sisters of Lazarus would still be weeping at his tomb. All of these things came from Mary’s consent to the angel.

If in the Incarnation God’s works salvation on the earth, He exacts of the human race a free assent to that salvation. In this respect, the young Galilean woman speaks for all of us. She becomes the first to assert, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” She is at once the unique locus in which redemption is accomplished and the supreme model for all the disciples of Christ.

In her own life, the mother of Jesus learned that personal history takes place one step at a time, and those steps represent the advance of holiness if they are, one by one, guided by the Word of God. “Thy Word,” we pray, “is a lamp unto my feet.” It is just a lamp; it sheds just enough light for the next step. It is not light at the end of the tunnel; it is lamp we hold in our hands. We light this lamp each, when we open the Sacred Text, so that it may guide our steps, one at a time. It is important that we do this everyday.

Even as Simeon prophesied that Jesus was “destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction,” the old man took care to warn Mary, “yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35). This prophecy was mainly fulfilled on Mount Calvary where “there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25), loyally adhering to him unto to the end. For this reason we find Mary—in the New Testament’s last mention of her—gathered with the other Christians in the upper room, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14).

Monday, December 5

Psalm 89 (Greek & Latin 88): This psalm is composed of three parts. The first has to do with God’s activity in the creation of the heavens and the earth, the second with His covenant and promise with respect to the house of David, and the third with certain crises of history that threaten that covenant and put its promise at peril. All three themes are organically connected.

To see how these three realities are joined within the Christian mystery, we may begin with a text from St. Clement of Alexandria around the year 200. He wrote that “the ancient and catholic Church stands alone in essence and idea and principle and preeminence, gathering together, by the will of the one God, through the one Lord, into the unity of the one faith, built upon the appropriate covenants, or rather the one covenant given at different times, all those who are already enlisted in it, whom He foreordained, having known from the foundation of the world that they would be righteous” (Stromateis 7.17.107). In sum, all of God’s dealings with this world are of whole cloth, including the grace of creation. All the historical covenants are expressions of the one covenant. From the beginning of time there has been only one God, one Lord, one faith.

The mystery of Christ was already present, then, when the voice of God called out into the aboriginal darkness of non-being, “Let there be light.” Christ is no afterthought in the divine plan; God has no relations with this world except in Christ. Even when the Father’s voice imposed form over the chaos of nonexistence, it was the form contained in His Word, who is His Son. God’s covenant with creation was the initial exercise in applied Christology.

The first part of our psalm, taking up the theme of this divine imposition of form over chaos, emphasizes the structural constancy of the universe, but already this cosmic theme is introduced in a setting best described as messianic. That is to say, already anticipating the psalm’s second part, the permanence of the Davidic throne is related to the unvarying dependability of the heavenly bodies, for both things are given shape by God’s holy word and sworn resolve: “For You declared: ‘Mercy shall be built up forever.’ Your truth is prepared in the heavens: ‘A covenant have I formed with my chosen ones; to David my servant I swore an oath: Forever will I provide for your seed; I shall establish your throne unto all generations.’ The heavens will confess Your wonders, O Lord, and Your truth in the church of Your saints.”

Now, as Christians, we know that God’s solemn promise to David, with respect to the everlasting stability of his throne, is fulfilled in the kingship of Christ, for the Son of David now sits forever enthroned at God’s right hand, executing both prophecy and promise. Only in Christ do we find the key to the mystery of this psalm: “Once I swore by My holiness, nor would I ever lie to David. His seed shall abide forever, and his throne as the sun in My sight, and like the moon forever established, a faithful witness in heaven.”

The theological bond, then, joining the creation to David, is Christ: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. . . . But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’ . . . And: ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands’” (Heb. 1:1, 2, 8, 10). The regal, messianic covenant of sonship is related to the fixed structure of the very world, because both realities are rooted in Christ. As font and inner form, He is their common warrant.

In fact, nonetheless, both things, God’s creation and His covenant, appear ever under threat throughout history, which theme brings us to the third part of our psalm. In this section we pray repeatedly for God’s vindication of the messianic covenant, which man in his rebellion endeavors ever to overthrow. Indeed, in our own times this struggle seems to have intensified and entered a new phase. After deism, rejecting God’s messianic covenant with us in Christ, strove to content us solely with the rational structure of creation, it was only a short time before creation itself came under siege. Now we live in a world where even the clearest manifestations of intelligent order are routinely dismissed as chaos, so grievously has the human spirit lost its use of reason.

One especially observes the recurrence of two expressions in this psalm: mercy (five times) and truth (seven times).

Tuesday, December 6

Luke 22.35-38: According to nearly all commentators that the present writer is disposed to trust, the purse, the wallet, and the sword are to be understood figuratively. They imply that the Christian mission will be costly, strenuous, and fraught with peril. The Church must be ready for anything (verse 36). ??A crisis is now about to fall. With the betrayal of Christ begins the last age of world history. What has been written must be fulfilled (to gegrammenon dei telesthenai, verse 37). The Lord refers here to His own fulfillment of the Suffering Servant prophecies from the Book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:12. This is the proper context for considering the Church’s mission in the world.

Revelation 14:1-13: Now we come again to the sealing of the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the “following” of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to “follow” Him, the context is the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38; John 21:18-19).

There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance and conversion to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in John’s view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God, His eternal purpose of salvation, the “Mystery” of which the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks.

Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too, pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of God; it is the monument to man’s achievements without God. Babylon is the city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were, speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to leave Babylon (18:4).

Third, the angel who proclaims the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.

Wednesday, December 7

Luke 22:39-46: We now come to the Agony in the Garden, our (apparently) earliest description of which is found in Hebrews 5:7. This brief description in Hebrews is important, because it indicates that the prayer of Jesus, made “with vehement cries,” was loud enough to be heard by at least some of the Apostles. It is their immediate testimony to the event that lies behind the descriptions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Luke is the only Evangelist to observe that Jesus was accustomed to spend the night in that place (cf. also 21:37), a custom that explains how Judas knew where to find Him that night.

Luke’s version of the Agony is simplified. He does not, like Matthew and Mark, indicate that the agony lasted a long time. He includes no threefold reprimand to the Apostles, nor does he describe them as fleeing at the time of the Lord’s arrest, nor does he single out three of them as special witnesses to the event.

Indeed, Luke does not even say it happened in a garden. He describes Jesus’ prayer as being made, rather, on a hill, “the Mount of Olives.” In fact, the Garden of Gethsemani is found on the west side of the Mount of Olives, but it is significant that Luke mentions the hill, not the garden. In fact, Luke normally pictures Jesus as praying on hills (cf. 6:12; 9:28).
There is the angel sent to strengthen the Lord during His trial. Luke, in his earlier temptation scene, had omitted the angelic ministry, of which Matthew (4:11) and Mark (1:13) spoke on that occasion. When Luke did describe that period of temptation, however, he remarked that the devil, having failed to bring about Jesus’ downfall, “departed from Him until an opportune time” (4:13). Now, in the garden, that time has come, and Jesus receives the ministry of an angel to strengthen Him for the task.
This is one of those angels of whom Jesus asks Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (26:53) This angelic ministry was ever available to Him, but now Jesus is in special need of it.
In Luke’s literary structure, this ministering angel stands parallel to Gabriel at the beginning of the Gospel. In the earlier case an angel introduces the Incarnation; in the present case an angel introduces the Passion. Very shortly angels will introduce the Resurrection (24:4).
Thursday, December 8

Luke 22:47-53: It is unlikely that Simon Peter and Malchus knew each other, the one being a Galilean fisherman and the other a servant of Caiaphas the high priest, living in Jerusalem. Nor is it probable, in the normal course of affairs, that the paths of these two men would ever have crossed.

Affairs were not following a normal course, however, on that fateful night just prior to Passover, when the destinies of Malchus and Simon came to an abrupt and dramatic confrontation in an olive orchard on the side of a hill just east of the Kidron Valley. ??Malchus was part of an armed band sent by the high priest to arrest Jesus of Nazareth secretly, away from the eyes and impulses of the Passover crowds.

This band was guided by Judas Iscariot, a defector from the small group of Jesus’ close companions; he was the one who could identify Jesus from within their number. The giveaway sign was an easy one; Judas would simply walk up to Jesus and kiss His hand, the customary greeting that a disciple gave to his rabbi.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Malchus himself regarded the coming event as especially significant. It had nothing to do with him, after all; he was simply the faithful servant of the high priest, expected to perform this task loyally, leaving to his betters the determination of such matters.

It was somewhat after midnight when that armed band left the house of Caiaphas, well to the south of the Temple, proceeded northward along the Kidron Creek, and approached the little bridge by which they could cross over to the Mount of Olives on the opposite side. Those in the front carried lanterns and flambeaus to light the way, for the night was dark, in spite of the full moon of Passover. Some of the band were armed with swords, while others carried only clubs (Matthew 26:47). We are not sure just what Malchus had in hand.

Meanwhile, Simon Peter was once again awakened by the voice of Jesus, having fallen asleep three times in as many hours, even as he listened to the prayer of Jesus. Weak in flesh, Simon had utterly failed in the Master’s command to watch and pray with Him (Matthew 26:41).??What a night. At the Passover Seder, just a few hours ago, Jesus had disclosed the presence of a traitor among them and foretold that the rest of the little group would fail Him in His coming hour of trial (26:21ø24, 31). Simon himself had been singled out for a special warning, as the Lord predicted his triple denial before that very night should run its course (26:33ø35). It was all entirely too much for a man to bear, so Simon had slept there on the ground, under the olive trees.?? But now he was awakened by the Lord’s voice: “Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand” (26:46).

And here they were, a band of armed men already on the scene. Simon leapt up, holding a sword that he had brought to make good his promise of loyalty in the face of danger. He recognized Judas Iscariot, who came forward to Jesus and, in the customary fashion, kissed the hand of his rabbi. Just what was this all about? The response of Jesus explained it all: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48). Simon waited no further.

Malchus saw the sword coming from the right, aimed at his throat, and he ducked quickly to his left to avoid decapitation. Even so, his right ear was partly severed by the tip of the blade (Luke 22:50). Then Jesus stepped up, grabbed his dangling ear, and replaced it entirely to his head, as though nothing had ever happened.

The rest of that night was a blur, and the whole next day, as he walked around in a daze, going to Pilate’s and elsewhere, but ever reaching up from time to time to feel his ear and trying to make sense of it all.

Some decades later, Malchus, a Christian now for many years and long repentant of his actions on that dreadful night, sat down and described his part in the event to a physician named Luke, who happened to be writing a new account of the life and teaching of Jesus. Malchus told how the Lord reached out His hand through the enveloping darkness and reattached his dangling ear. “He made it as good as new, really. But, please, leave out my name,” Malchus requested of Luke. He was not aware that another writer would put it in anyway (John 18:10). This other writer, John, had also been present when it happened, and he may have learned the name of Malchus from a cousin, who encountered Simon in the courtyard of the high priest somewhat later that night (18:26).

Friday, December 9

Luke 22.54-65: It is most significant, surely, that Peter’s triple denial, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn two lessons that they must never forget:

First, anyone may fall, at any time. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,’ he boasted, ‘yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus, we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl.

The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Second, Christians were also to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas. Thus, the Gospel stories tell us, until our very last breath, it is never too late to return to God in answer to the summons of His grace. It is probably today’s Gospel that gives the most poignant description of this conversion: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . So Peter went out and wept bitterly” (verses 61-62).

Revelation 16.1-11: The second and third plagues here (verses 3-4)—the changing of water into blood, are identical to Moses’ first plague—which was regarded, we recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even Pharaoh’s magicians could do it (Exodus 7:22).

Here in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of persecution caused by the enemies of God’s people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been done, that God’s fidelity has been made manifest.