Good Friday, April 19

Psalms 22 (Greek & Latin 21): There is no doubt about the importance of this psalm in reference to the Lord’s suffering and death. Not only did Jesus pray this psalm’s opening line on His gibbet of pain; other lines of it are also interpreted by the Church, even by the Evangelists themselves, as prophetic references to details in the drama of Holy Friday.

Consider, for instance, this verse: “All who gazed at Me derided Me. With their lips they spoke and wagged their heads: ‘He hoped on the Lord. Let Him deliver him. Let Him save him, since He approves of him.’” One can hardly read this verse without recalling what is described in Matthew: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, . . . ‘If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, . . . ‘He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him’” (27:39–43).

The Gospels likewise tell of the soldiers dividing the garments of Jesus at the time of His Crucifixion. St. John’s description of this event actually quotes our psalm verbatim as a fulfilled prophecy (John 19:23-24).

Moreover, if Holy Church thinks of the Lord Himself as praying this psalm on the Cross, such an interpretation is amply justified by a later verse that says: “Like a potsherd has my strength been scorched, and my tongue cleaved to my palate.” Hardly can the Church read this line without calling to mind the Lord who said from the Cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).

And as she thinks of the nails supporting the Lord’s body on the tree of redemption, the Church recognizes the voice that speaks yet another line of our psalm: “They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones.”

Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).

This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).

Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).

Holy Saturday, April 20
Habakkuk 3: If we have no eye-witnesses account of the event of the Resurrection, just where do we find an eyewitness account of Jesus’ descent into Hades, as we confess in the Creed? Do we, after all, have a biblical eyewitness to this event?
And the Church’s answer to this question has always been, of course, “Yes, we do have such a witness, and his name is Habakkuk.” In truth, the Church has ever regarded the third chapter of Habakkuk as a prophetic vision of Jesus’ triumphant descent into Hades to preach the Gospel to the spirits in prison and to bring forth the ancient saints who so eagerly awaited His arrival.

Zechariah 14: A nun from Gaul, named Egeria, who visited the Christians at Jerusalem in the late fourth century, left us a description of the various liturgical practices of that ancient church. In the course of it, she described how, on Ascension Thursday, the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus had ascended into heaven. And what did they do? They read the entire account, from the Gospel according to John, of the Lord’s suffering and death.

This remarkable detail reveals how closely related the Christians of old thought the various actions of the Lord by which we were redeemed. They did not think of redemption as taking place solely on the Cross, where the price of our sins was paid by our Lord’s blood (1 Peter 1:19), but as involving also the other events integral to the mystery of the Cross. The accomplishing of our redemption included also the event we celebrate today, Holy Saturday, when Jesus descended into the nether world to free the bondsmen whom Satan held there (3:19).

It included likewise his rising from the dead, on Easter, inasmuch as Jesus “was delivered up for our offenses and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). As was suggested by Egeria’s account of the celebration of Ascension Thursday, the mystery of our redemption included also our Lord’s ascent into heaven and his assumption of the throne at the right hand of the Father, having been made for ever a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This latter theme, of course, provides the major images of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

With this in mind, we should not be surprised that the Book of Zechariah, in the final chapter of its section dealing more explicitly with the sufferings of our Lord, prophesies also his standing on the Mount of Olives (verse 4); this mountain is symbolically divided, much as, in the Old Testament, the Red Sea and the River Jordan were divided. His ascent from the Mount of Olives will cause to flow the living waters of redemption (verses 8-9) and the reunion of all God’s people in the Holy City (verses 14-21).

Easter Sunday

Mark 1-8: The Resurrection is the very essence of the Gospel. The “good news” is that Jesus is risen from the dead. The shortest version of the Creed simply says, “Jesus is Lord.” And how is Jesus Lord? St. Peter answers, ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

“Christ is risen” is just another way of saying, “Jesus is Lord.” His resurrection is the essence of the Gospel itself. This is the confession through which we are saved: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor 15:17). Because Jesus rose again for our justification, then it follows that if He did not rise, then we are not justified. This is the reason, in short, that Easter is the most important feast of the year. It is the day on which our redemption was perfected.

It is through the resurrection of Christ that we are begotten as children of God. St. Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).

St. Paul, in his sermon at the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, expressed this truth: “And we declare to you glad tidings (evangelion)—that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus” (Acts 13:31-32).

In the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is not portrayed as the resurrection of a god. Jesus is not some kind of Osiris. His resurrection is not the Christian version of the death and resurrection motif known to classical mythology.

On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of a dead man. It is as a human being that Jesus rises from the dead. It is a human being that is transformed by the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is an historical fact that involves a real man, a figure in history.

Mark 16:9-20: Because these final verses of the canonical text of Mark are found neither in the more reliable manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) nor in other ancient versions (Armenian, Georgian, etc.), it is reasonably conjectured that we have received them from a hand later than Mark himself. It would appear that they were added by a copyist who felt that Mark 16:8 was too abrupt an ending, so he added these post-Resurrection appearances in order to make the ending of Mark more closely resemble the endings of the other gospels.

In fact, the components of this material is largely drawn from those sources: The story of Mary Magdalene (verses 9-11) is drawn from John and Luke; the account of the two journeying disciples (verses 12-13) is taken from Luke; the Great Commission (verses 14-18) is adapted from Matthew, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles; and the Lord’s Ascension comes from Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

These considerations, however, have to do solely with literary history, not theology. They impugn neither the divine inspiration nor the canonical authority of Mark 16:9-20, inasmuch as the Church has received this text as Holy Scripture.

Monday, April 22

Matthew 28:1-10: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” preserve the continuity with the Passion story. As they were witnesses to Jesus’ death (27:56) and burial (27:61), so now they will be witnesses to His empty tomb (verse 1).

Matthew, who seems eager to press on with the rest of the story, omits t he reason for their coming to the tomb (Mark 16:1). To him, this detail would be nearly a distraction. Thus, he also omits the ladies’ discussion about how to open the tomb (Mark 16:3).

They find the tomb already opened, not to let Jesus out, but to let visitors in. This angel—if it is not irreverent to think of him as a “gentleman”—knows to open the door for ladies.

The myrrh-bearing women, perhaps already startled by the earthquake (an image favored by Matthew—see 8:24; 27:54), approach the tomb. The impressive appearance of the angel probably does nothing to reassure them (verse 3), and it certainly had its effect on the soldiers guarding the tomb (verse 4). These soldiers will later claim to have slept on guard (verse 13), which is a bit of an understatement.

As often in prophetic literature (Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation), the angel explains what is happening (verses 5-7). Indeed, this empty tomb requires an explanation. When Matthew’s Gospel ends, moreover, the difference between Jew and Christian will be their differing explanations for the empty tomb.

The announcing angel, having reassured these frightened women, reminds them that Jesus had already predicted this day and this event (verse 6; 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:18-19). In fact, Jesus had also promised to meet His disciples in Galilee (verse 7; 26:32; c. Mark 16:7).

Learning the news of the resurrection, the women disciples go rushing out, to be the first human heralds of the event that changed the world (verse 8). The brief scene of their sudden meeting with Jesus (verses 9-10) may record the same incident of which St. John provides such a theologically rich account (John 20:11-18—Note that in both accounts Jesus refers to the disciples as “my brothers.”)

In a manner typical of Matthew’s narrative, these women “adore” Jesus (cf. 2:2,8,11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:17).

Tuesday, April 23

Luke 24:13-35: The meaning of the Sacred Scriptures was a preoccupation of Luke’s Gospel from the start. It was the burden of Jesus’ first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, when he gave his own reading of the Book of Isaiah. It was the subject of Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration. In the Emmaus story in chapter 24, Jesus feigns ignorance precisely with a view to teaching the two disciples—and through them, all Christians to the end of time—his own understanding of the biblical text.

This was a process of growth, and Jesus’ study of the Hebrew Scriptures was integral to that growth. He did read books, and he learned from them. The works of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the others truly contoured his mind and conscience. The mental horizon of Jesus, as we discern it in the four gospels, took shape during those long years at Nazareth, where—Luke tells us—he went to the synagogue “according to his custom.”

So when Luke also says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,” it is wrong to imagine his growth was unrelated to what he read—any more than his increase in stature was unrelated to what he ate (Luke 2:52).

Luke is our chief source on this matter. In fact, he is the evangelist who describes Jesus reading and interpreting Isaiah near the very beginning of his pubic ministry (Luke 4:16-21).

The Law and the Prophets shaped his self-awareness in an unparalleled way, because the Savior found in those writings his identity, vocation, and mission. His grasp of those texts—an understanding at the root of Christian theology—is the very substance of Jesus’ “self-regard.” It was in studying the Hebrew Bible that Jesus became convinced, “I must be about the things of my Father” (Luke 2:49).

What David and Isaiah wrote, then, was not something different from who Jesus knew himself to be—and what his Father summoned him to do.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, in the very act of sending the Apostles out to evangelize the world, Jesus “opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). The proclamation of the Gospel was to include the incorporation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christian theology begins with—and is inseparable from understanding the Old Testament as Jesus understood it.

Wednesday, April 24

John 20:1-10: From the beginning, the proclamation of the Gospel has always involved a claim that the full weight of universal human wisdom declares to be impossible: the resurrection of a man who had been dead in his grave for a couple of days—as distinct from the mere resuscitation of someone who was presumed to be dead.

This claim, without which there is no Gospel, is the primary component of the “folly” mentioned by the Apostle Paul as inevitably characteristic of the Christian message. Those who believe the Gospel inevitably find themselves separated from what the rest of the human race considers normal and sane. They willingly place themselves outside of every premise and expectation common to the race of men. Believers go for broke. They have burned their bridges with respect to this world. All their eggs are in the Easter basket.

The Song of Solomon 4: It should not surprise us that the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers sometimes employed considerable poetic imagination to interpret this book. The book itself is highly poetic and imaginative. Even in their most literal sense, the individual verses of The Song of Solomon describe the details of sexual intimacy in the most exalted and extravagant poetic terms.

The Bible does not usually describe sex. Normally it just states the sexual act as a fact, such as “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife” (1 Samuel 1:19). There is no elaboration on these matters in the narrative parts of the Bible. It is very significant, therefore, that the Bible, when it does speak more in detail about sex, does not do so in graphic or explicit terms. When it is treated in detail, sex is treated by the Bible in terms of enthusiastic romance.

Poetry prevails. Kisses are likened to the taste of wine, breasts are described as clusters of grapes. Eyes are like pools (7:4). Constant are the references to fruits and flowers and exotic aromas. There are frequent allusions to birds, flocks and frolicking animals. Lips are likened to scarlet lace, and cheeks and temples to pomegranates and apples.

There is lots of honey in this book, often mixed with milk and wine. Myrrh is everywhere (1:13; 3:6; 4:6,14; 5:1,5,13). This exotic imagery represents God’s attitude toward the sexual intimacy of husband and wife. It is not something crudely physical or merely biological. It is the heady stuff of romance and poetry. Were this not the case, the union between husband and wife could hardly serve as the symbol of a higher and more spiritual mystery.

Thursday, April 25

John 21:15-25: The Greek word anthrakia (cf. the English derivative “anthracite,” a type of coal), meaning a charcoal fire, is found only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel according to St. John. The first
instance is in 18:18 and designates the courtyard fire where the officers and servants of the high priest stood warming themselves through the chilly night of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. Simon Peter likewise came to that place and stood near a cousin of Malchus, a servant of the high priest. It was there by the charcoal fire that Simon thrice denied even knowing our Lord, going so far as to confirm the denials with an oath.

The second charcoal fire in John’s Gospel is the one in its final scene, the fire kindled by the Lord Himself, over which He prepared breakfast for His dispirited Apostles (21:9). After breakfast it was at this fire that Jesus would put to that same Simon Peter his threefold question: “Do you love Me?” The Apostle understood, of course, why the question was asked of him three times, for it was the very number of his own denials. At this point the chastened Peter, no longer trusting himself, relies completely on the Lord’s knowledge of his heart (21:17).

But there is more to the story. Simon Peter’s threefold profession is followed by a reference to his eventual martyrdom, which had already happened by the time this text was written down later in the first century.

Indeed, the author of John 21 clearly presupposes his readers’ familiarity with Peter’s martyrdom. The story of the Apostle’s crucifixion on Vatican Hill in Rome in the mid-60s was so widely reported among the churches that John could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter’s hands as “signifying by what death he would glorify God” (21:18–19).

The point required no further explanation. The early Christians were so familiar with the circumstances of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome that around the turn of the century Clement of Rome (Corinthians 5.4), writing from Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch (Romans 4),writing to Rome, felt no need to elaborate on the details and circumstances. That this Johannine passage (“you will stretch out your hands . . . signifying by what death he would glorify God”) did in fact refer to Peter’s crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian, writing in Africa slightly after the year 200. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: “Then was Peter ‘bound by another,’ when he was fastened to the cross” (Scorpiace 15.3).

Friday, April 26

John 1:1-18: The opening words are clearly intended to evoke the beginning of Genesis, thus indicating that God’s preexistent and eternal Word is the active principle of Creation: The very first time God said something in Creation, He was speaking through the divine and personal Word who abode with Him from all eternity. John shares this vision with other authors in the New Testament, most obviously Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4. All three of these sources place this theological reflection near the beginning of their composition.

The noun “God” is used in two ways in the opening verses: First, it appears with the article (ho Theos), in a substantive sense, to refer to God the Father. Second, it appears without the article (Theos), in a predicate sense, to refer to the divine Word. Thus, “the Word was with God [ton Theon], and the Word was God [Theos]. He was in the beginning with God [ton Theon].”

The Song of Solomon 6: It is important that the erotic imagery of The Song of Solomon is not separated from its covenant context. The bride in this book is not just any pretty girl. She is the unique beloved, his one and only, and she is constantly referred to in those terms. She is his sealed fountain (4:12; cf. Proverbs 5:15-19). This is a book about covenant fidelity, even beyond the grave (cf. 8:6-7).

At the same time, and like all love poetry, it stresses the theme of losing and finding one another, because in so many instances husbands and wives do this their whole life long. Great attention is given to presence and absence (4:8; 6:1), and therefore searching (3:1-5; 5:2-8).

Very important to this book is the imagery of the garden, for which the Song of Solomon uses the Persian word paradeisos, the very place where Jesus said He would meet the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This garden evokes, of course, the original garden, the garden of man’s innocence, where he lived in intimacy with God. It was in that garden, too, that man and woman enjoyed the intimacy of their married love, in the days before clothing was deemed necessary. The joys of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, as they are described in this book, attempt to approximate man’s original state in that original garden. This joy that husband and wife find in one another is one of the basic human blessings that was not entirely lost by man’s fall.