Friday, January 4

John 1:35-51: Today’s readings present us with two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, Cain and Abel. We start with Peter and Andrew.

Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

1 John 3:4-15: This reading presents us with two other brothers: Cain and Abel.

Our brotherhood in Christ is contrasted with history’s first brotherhood, that of Cain and Abel (verse 12). In that ancient case Cain violated the most elementary duty of brotherhood by murdering Abel, and he murdered him, John gives us to believe, because he hated him. From this, John concludes that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (verse 15). This is the reason why, from the beginning, Christians have been instructed to love one another (verse 11; cf. 2:7-8).

The negative example of Cain, a man lacking in both faith (Hebrews 11:4) and love (verse 12), was taken over in Christian moral instruction (Jude 11; First Clement 14), and John clearly expects his readers to be familiar with both the biblical text and the theme.

Augustine of Hippo pursued this motif in a particularly Johannine way by comparing the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the classical account of Romulus and Remus. The two murderers, Cain and Romulus, both fratricides, were also founders of cities. These two cities, Rome and Enoch (cf. Genesis 4:17), symbolize what St. John called “the world,” understood as humanity’s attempt to live its own life in defiance of God. John’s world corresponds to what Augustine calls “the city of man,” which he contrasts with the City of God (cf. The City of God 15:5-8).

Cain’s story, because it is a tale of hatred, exemplifies the world’s murderous attitude toward Christians (verses 13-15; John 15:18). In this respect John provides a further elaboration of the incompatibility between God and the world. To be a child of God is to be the beneficiary of an immense love, a love radically incompatible with hatred toward anyone. A person certainly cannot be a child of God and still hate other children of God. Nowhere does the spirit of the world more seriously endanger Christians than by tempting them to hate one another.

Saturday, January 5

Genesis 5: In this first biblical genealogy we draw special attention to the figure of Enoch. After the Epistle to the Hebrews gives its initial definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), there follows the famous list of the “great cloud of witnesses,” those “elders” who “obtained a good testimony” by exemplifying such faith (12:1).

One can hardly fail to observe in this list the strong emphasis on death with respect to this saving faith. Throughout Hebrews 11 faith has to do with how one dies, and “all these died in faith” (11:13). This emphasis on death in the context of faith renders very interesting the inclusion of Enoch among the list of faith’s exemplars, because Enoch departed this world in some way other than death. Indeed, in the genealogy here in Genesis 5, the verb “died” eight times with respect to the patriarchs from Adam to Lamech, but in the case of Enoch, “the seventh from Adam” (Jude 14), our text says simply he “walked with God, and he was not found (ouk eurisketo), for God removed (metetheken) him” (verse 24).

By way of commentary on this passage, the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “By faith Enoch was removed (metethe) so that he should not see death, and was not found (ouk eurisketo), because God removed (metetheken) him; for before his removal (metatheseos) he was witnessed to have pleased (euariestekenai) God” (11:5). That ancient “witness,” cited here in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is found in the Book of Wisdom, where Enoch is thus described: “He was pleasing (euarestos) to God and was beloved of Him, so that, living among sinners, he was removed (metetethe). He was snatched away so that evil would not alter his understanding, nor deceit beguile his soul. For the malice of what is worthless takes away things of worth, and the roving of passion subverts a guileless mind. Made perfect (teleotheis) in a short time, he filled out massive times, for his soul pleased (areste) God. So He rushed him from the midst of evil” (4:10-14).

Such is the biblical witness about the “short time” that Enoch spent on this earth (a mere 365 years, according to verse 23). Unlike the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11, Enoch did not die in faith, for the unusual reason that he did not die at all. He nonetheless deserved a place in that heroic list, we are told, because “he pleased God” by his faith. Thus, when we believers “draw near unto the Throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), when we approach “the general assembly and church of the firstborn registered in heaven” (12:23), there stands Enoch among “the spirits of just men made perfect (teteleiomenon).”

Sunday, January 6

Matthew 2:1-11: Among the notable features proper to the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the way it includes the verb “to adore” (proskyneo) in passages where that verb does not appear in parallel accounts in the other Gospels.

Thus, Matthew describes various people falling in adoration before Christ in scenes where they are not said to be doing so in the other Gospel versions of the same stories. These instances include the accounts of the cleansing of the leper (8:2), the petition of Jairus (9:18), the walking on the water (14:33), the prayer of the Canaanite woman (15:25), and the request of Zebedee’s wife for her two sons (20:20). A pronounced emphasis on Christ-ward adoration, then, is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s narrative.

There is, furthermore, a special parallelism between the first and last instances of this verb in Matthew’s composition. These are the two scenes of the coming of the Magi, near the beginning of the Gospel, and the Great Commission to the Church at the very end. In the former of these, the verb proskyneo, “to adore,” is found three times (2:2, 8, 11), which is Matthew’s highest concentration of that word in a single scene.

A literal reading of the Great Commission passage makes it appear that the Eleven Apostles are actually bowed over in adoration before the risen Jesus at the very time when the Great Commission is given to them (28:9). Thus, not only does Matthew portray various individuals adoring the Lord, but his entire Gospel can be said to begin and to end with that picture in mind.

There is a further 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.

Monday, January 7

1 Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.

Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Genesis 7: Noah’s construction of the ark represented his faith, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (11:7).

Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also preached righteousness to his contemporaries. The Apostle Peter referred to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (Epistle to the Corinthians 7.6). Evidently, however, their number included only members of his own family!

This picture of Noah as a somewhat unsuccessful preacher came to the early Christians from Jewish lore. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1).

Unlike Noah’s contemporaries, we ourselves hearken to his preaching. That is to say, we submit to this new baptismal flood because we repent at the witness of Noah. Baptism presupposes and requires this repentance of our sins, this conversion of our hearts to the apostolic word of Noah. In repentance we plunge ourselves into the deeper mystery of Noah’s flood, which is the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:3; Colossians 2:12).

Tuesday, January 8

1 John 2:15-23: John takes Christological heresy very seriously. In fact, he sees its emergence as a sign of the last times and the judgment of the world. For John, this is how “we know that it is the last hour” (verse 18). This consideration of “the last hour” is what links the current section of the epistle to the verses immediately preceding. Those verses ended, we recall, with an assertion that ”the world is passing away” (2:17).

One sure sign that the world is passing away, says John, is the appearance of these heretics, whom he does not flinch from calling “the Antichchrist,” even “many antichrists.”

Genesis 8: The dove sent out by Noah is also rich in symbolism. Since, as we have seen, baptism is the fulfillment of that mystery of which the flood was a type, we should rather expect to find the dove to appear in the New Testament descriptions of baptism, and indeed it does. At the baptism of our Lord, the Holy Spirit assumes that form in order to confirm the testimony of the Father, who proclaims Jesus His beloved Son. Thus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Some say that, just as salvation came in the time of Noah by the wood and the water, and as the dove came back to Noah in the evening with an olive branch, so, they say, the Holy Spirit descended on the true Noah, the author of the new creation, when the spiritual dove came upon Him at His baptism, to demonstrate that He it is who, by the wood of the cross, confers salvation on believers, and who, by His death at eventide, conferred on the world the grace of salvation.”

The ark, on which the Spirit descends, is a symbol of the Church, the vessel of salvation. In the ironical words of Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-third century, “If anyone was saved outside the ark of Noah, so a person outside the Church cannot be saved” (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 6). That is to say, it is impossible to be saved outside of the Church, because the name of Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven given us by which we must be saved, and the Ark-Church is the vessel which holds all of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ unto their salvation.

We may summarize the Christian teaching on the story of the Flood with these words of John Chrysostom in the second half of the fourth century: “The narrative of the Flood is a mystery, and its details are a type of things to come. The ark is the Church; Noah is Christ; the dove, the Holy Spirit; the olive branch, the divine goodness. As in the midst of the sea, the ark protected those who were within it, so the Church saves those who are saved” (Homily on Lazarus 6).

Wednesday, January 9

Matthew 4:12-17: This is the first of three pericopes about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The next two stories are the calling of the first apostles at the Sea of Galilee (4:18-22) and the gathering of the great multitude (4:23-25) that will hear the Sermon on the Mount in the next chapter.

In the present text Matthew sets the stage for this Galilean ministry by showing it as a fulfillment of prophecy, specifically Isaiah 9:1-2. This prophecy, having to do with Gentiles finding the light, takes up the same theme as the earlier story of the pagan Magi who followed the star.

This early emphasis on the Galilean ministry is important to the structure of Matthew. At the end of his Gospel (in stark contrast to Luke) the revelation of the risen Christ to the Church will take place in this same “Galilee of the Gentiles” (28:7,10,16). Matthew’s story of Jesus ministry thus begins and ends in Galilee, the place where Jews and Gentiles live together. Galilee is thus an image of the Church.

Genesis 9: The word “covenant” (berith), which appeared in Genesis 6:18 for the first time in Holy Scripture, is now taken up and developed. The earliest explicit account of God’s covenant, that is to say, is the covenant with Noah. The second divine covenant, which we shall see in Chapters 15 and 17, is God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis the idea of God’s covenant is found in only these two narratives.

The first, the Noachic covenant here in Genesis 9, is God’s covenant with all of the world and with mankind in particular. The second, the Abrahamic covenant especially as described in Genesis 17, is God’s more particular covenant with the descendants of Abraham, which will be further defined as the biblical narrative continues. There are several significant theological features shared by these two covenant narratives in Genesis, features reflected in a distinctive vocabulary that distinguishes them from the other covenants recorded in Holy Scripture.

One of the distinguishing features shared by these two covenants, in Genesis 9 and 17, is the choice of verbs employed to predicate it. In most of Holy Scripture, the verb used for “making” a covenant is karat, literally “to cut.” Although the initiative in the covenant is always God’s, the verb karat does suggest something of a mutual agreement between two parties. In fact, both the verb karat and the noun berith were commonly employed in the ancient world to designate political treaties. Examples of this usage are the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:27, and the treaty between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26:28. In God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18, moreover, karat is the verb employed for the making of the covenant, as is the case in most of the Hebrew Scriptures (for instance, Deuteronomy 5:2).

Thursday, January 10

Matthew 4:18-25: The second pericope (18-22) about the ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first Apostles. As fishermen, these follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church. In the third Galilean pericope (23-25), the fishing is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation of the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.” The people are gathering here, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.

1 John 3:16-23: John’s exhortation that we should “not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” merits a closer grammatical inspection. In the combination “word and tongue” we recognize what grammarians call a hendiadys, which means that a single idea is expressed by two words. That is to say, in John’s expression there is no real difference between word and tongue; they are both metaphors for speech. John means simply, “Let not our love be just a lot of talk.”

This much is clear enough, but our parsing should be carried over to John’s second pair of words, “deed and truth.” It is important to see that this second combination is also a hendiadys. In context, both words, deed and truth, mean the same thing; for John there is no real distinction between them. True love for one another is not just a lot of talk. It is composed, rather, of what we do. This is how “we shall know that we are of the truth” (verse 19).

In the verses that follow, John seems to have in mind those Christians of sensitive conscience, whose hearts may be smitten by a strong sense of their sins. No matter how hard they struggle, they find that their hearts condemn them, and they become subject to misgivings regarding their spiritual state (verse 20),

John strengthens such Christians by directing their attention to two elementary facts. First, they are to consult their actual behavior, especially active charity toward others, as a more reliable indicator of their true spiritual state. Second, they are to recall that the all-knowing Father reads their consciences more accurately than they do, and in His benevolent gaze they are to place their trust, putting their hearts at rest (pesomen ten kardian). In the context, John especially has in mind the efficacious prayer whereby “whatever we ask we receive from Him” (cf. also John 14:12-13; 16:23).

Friday, January 11

Matthew 5:1-12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Genesis 11: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all of mankind, up to this point, speaks with a common tongue (verse 1).

The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (verse 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God that we have seen, starting in Chapter Three.

God’s response is twofold. It is both a punishment against the rebels and a preventative measure against their becoming even worse. That is to say, even God’s punishment is an act of mercy.

In the more general symbolism of Holy Scripture, Babel also represents Babylon, the city of power and godless rebellion, which is overthrown definitively in the Book of Revelation. There is a symbolic identity, therefore, uniting the present story to the destruction of Babylon described in Revelation 17 and 18. This city represents any political and economic establishment characterized by arrogance and the love of power.