Friday, January 8

John 2.1-11: The Epiphany season celebrates yet a third manifestation of the glory of Christ in this story of the marriage in Cana of Galilee. It was of this event that St. John declared,

This, the beginning of his signs, Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and he manifested his glory, and his disciples began</> to believe [aorist tense: epistevsan] in him.

This is not just the “first” of Jesus’ signs, it is the arche, the “principle,” the font from which the subsequent signs come forth. It is the transformational sign; it reveals the glory of Christ in such a way that his disciples, who have been with him only one week at this point, begin to believe in him.

The verb phaino is the root word for our English words “fantastic,” “fanatic,” and, simply “fan.” The disciples of Jesus start to become “fans,” fanatics, because they have perceived the transformation of the water into wine. It was just inert water at one moment, but then suddenly it becomes alive. Wine is a living thing.

This transition of the chemical to the biochemical is what catches the attention of the disciples. This is really a new thing, and they begin to believe in him.

Genesis 8: The dove sent out by Noah is 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.”

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).

Saturday, January 9

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.

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.” In these Genesis covenants of God with Noah and Abraham, however, two other verbs are employed: natan, “to give” (9:12; 17:2), and haqim, “to establish” (9:9, 11; 17:7). The first of these verbs emphasizes the gratuity, the generosity, of God’s act in making the covenant; it is pure, unmerited grace. This is why, in each case, God calls it “My covenant” (9:15; 17:7). The second verb places the accent on God’s resolve in the covenant; God Himself will not break the covenant. Each of these covenants is a perpetual pledge of hope for the future.

A second distinguishing feature of these two covenants in Genesis 9 and 17 is the ’oth berith, “the sign of the covenant,” a distinctive symbol of each covenant. In the case of Noah, the ’oth berith is the rainbow (9:12–17), and in the case of Abraham it is circumcision (17:1).

In the covenant with Noah, the function of the rainbow as a “sign” is to cause God to “remember” His covenant (9:15–16). The covenant sign serves as a reminder, as it were, a “memorial,” a zikkaronI in Hebrew, an anamnesis in Greek.

This theme will be taken up later on in Holy Scripture, when Jesus describes God’s definitive covenant with the Church in terms of an anamnesis (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25). The Lord’s Supper, that is to say, is not simply an occasion for Christians to remember Jesus and His saving work on our behalf; as a “sign of the covenant,” the rite of breaking the bread and sharing the cup is even more the ineffable ’oth berith to God Himself, in which He is called upon to “remember” the redemption that He has definitively given and established with us in the Lord Jesus. This is why the Church’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the defining act of her existence.

Sunday, January 10

Genesis 10: Already at the end of the previous chapter of Genesis we found that all was not well among the sons of Noah, and the tensions of that chapter will be developed extensively in the rest of the biblical story. Just as Ham treated his father, Noah, with disrespect, so the sons of Ham—the Egyptians the Canaanites—will make life unpleasant for the children of Shem, which includes the Israelites. Thus, the discussion of the variety of nations here in chapter 10 prepares the way for the account of the diversity of tongues in chapter 11. In the present chapter we are given the ethnic aspect of the coming conflicts in the books of Exodus and Joshua.

This list of the nations, however, seems more preoccupied with geography than ethnicity. We note that the descendants of Shem (still called Semites) mainly inhabit the Fertile Crescent, while the offspring of Ham inhabit areas to the south and southwest of the Fertile Crescent, and the children of Japheth live to the northwest, in the area of the Turkish peninsula and the Aegean Sea. That is to say, this list covers roughly the three landmasses that contain the Mediterranean Basin: southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The Holy Land touches all three of these land masses.

Josephus, describing this period, says that the descendants of Noah “first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples. Now the plain in which they first dwelt was called Shinar. God also commanded them to send colonies abroad, for the thorough peopling of the earth, that they might not raise seditions among themselves, but might cultivate a great part of the earth, and enjoy its fruits after a plentiful manner” (Antiquities 1.4.1).

Holy Scripture ascribes to God the division of the earth among the tribes and clans of mankind. Indeed, this division is said to precede the rebellion of Babel and the multiplication of the tongs. That is to say, the genetic distinctions within the human race the human race are presented in the Bible as a good aspect of human history, not as a consequence of sin. About seventy nations are listed in this chapter. We remember, in this respect, that Jesus sent out exactly that number of apostles (Luke 10:1), a number indicating the universality of their mission to “make disciples of all nations.” In other words, the evangelization of the human race is not presented simply as “one soul at a time.” Full evangelization requires that the nations themselves—together with their own unique and distinctive cultures—become enclaves of faith.

Monday, January 11

Matthew 4.18-25: As fishermen, these future apostles 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 the 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.

Genesis 11: 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.

Its punishment by the division of tongues was especially appropriate. Augustine of Hippo comments on this chapter: “As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in its pride was punished, so that man, who refused to understand God when He gave His commands, should also be misunderstood when he gave commands. Thus was dissolved their conspiracy, because each man withdrew from those who could not understand and banded with those whose speech he found intelligible. So the nations were divided according to their languages and scattered over the face of the earth, as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in hidden ways that we cannot understand” (The City of God 16.4).

Tuesday, January 12

Hebrews 5.1-14: This section of Hebrews recognizes a distinction well known in moral philosophy—the distinction between the milk of the beginner and the solid food of the proficient.

The Christian begins with mild teaching: doctrines easy to digest, the simple doctrines of the catechism. At the beginning of the next chapter our author gives a list of these: “The foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

There are examples of this simple catechesis in the New Testament. For instance:

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

In this text there is elementary teaching about Christian Baptism, in the course of which it is distinguished from John’s baptism of repentance.

This teaching is what Hebrews 6 refers to. Another example is found in Acts 19:1-6, about baptism and the laying-on of hands, another theme to which Hebrews refers. Such things are called “milk”; they form the Christians’ introductory food.

Both Paul and Peter mention such “milk”. Thus, we read in First Corinthians, “I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (3:1-2).

And Saint Peter wrote, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, unto salvation “ (1 Peter 2:2-3).

If Christians spend their whole lives consuming baby food, however, they will eventually grow anemic. Indeed, such spiritual anemia is not uncommon. It is not rare to find Christians who have done no serious study of the Christian faith after age 12. Such Christians are no longer infants; they are malnourished and even starving adults, whose spiritually empty bellies are swollen with famine. This is a serious but widespread pastoral problem.

St. Paul warns the Corinthians: “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

We know that during his whole time at Ephesus, St. Paul taught Christian doctrine to his Ephesians every single day. When Paul and the other Christians were expelled from the synagogue, St. Luke tells us, “he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, discoursing daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:9-10).

For a Christian, a day without Bible study can be written off as a wasted day.

Wednesday, January 13

Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family were very wealthy because of Pharaoh’s generosity to someone he was trying to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7). The story of their separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendents, not Lot’s, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peace-making are qualities of the man of faith.

Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.

The present chapter closes with God’s solemn asseveration to Abram, promising him the land and the “seed” (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich ambivalence of this latter noun (zera‘ in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically correct but entirely prosaic “descendants” for “seed” (verses 15-16).

Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period — cf. 28:19) and Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of worship (verses 4,18).

Thursday, January 14< /b>

Matthew 5.21-32: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.

This second contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:27-32) takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus.

Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.

In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.

Friday, January 15

Hebrews 6.13-20: What was arguably the best fiction work in English in the 19th century was also, perhaps, one of the best treatises in philosophy during that century. It is a lengthy account of a sea voyage on a ship called the Pequod. This whaling vessel, manned by an international crew, set sail on Christmas Day.

The first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck, was a quiet, conservative Christian, who he relied on his Christian to determine his actions and interpretations of events. The second mate, Stubb, was a sort of fatalist, persuaded that things happen as they are supposed to, so there was little that he could do about it.

Near the end of this long story, there was a brief discussion between Stubb and Flask about anchors. In the course of that discussion, Stubb inquired, “I wonder, Flask, if the world in anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.”

Is the world anchored anywhere? We may address this question in the light of today’s reading from Hebrews. In response to the query Stubb put to Flask—“I wonder if the world in anchored anywhere”—our epistle answers,: “This [hope] we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters behind the veil, where the forerunner has for us entered—Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Christian theology insists that the true anchor is hope. This is the reason the depiction of the anchor appears everywhere in Christian art. Alone among the peoples of the Greco-Roman world, the early believers knew the origin of stability and the source of hope. In the words of this text, they “laid hold” on the hope set before them. This is why the anchor—along with the cross and the fish—portrayed everywhere in the Christian catacombs. It symbolized the hope that held Christians in place in the midst of a tempestuous and unstable world.

Hebrews describes this anchor of hope as “firm and secure”—asphale kai bebaia. The first of these adjectives, asphalewhich means “firm”—is the root of our English word “asphalt.” As an adverb we find it in the first Christian sermon: ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly (asphale) that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

The second adjective describing this anchor of hope is bebaia, meaning “secure.” Our author used it earlier to describe the Christian conviction: “we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence bebaia to the end” (3:14).

The entire efficacy of the anchor depends on the ship’s not losing contact with it. Hope cannot be hypothetical. We must be tied to it.