Friday, January 1, 2020

John 1.1-18: Commonly known as the Johannine “prologue,” these introductory verses should better be called an “overture” to John’s Gospel, inasmuch as we find in it the chief theological themes that the evangelist will develop in the coming narrative.

Some students of the text have suggested, in fact, that the bulk of these verses formed an early Christian hymn, and that John’s account amounts to a narrative interpretation of that hymn. Notwithstanding the attractiveness of this suggestion, it must be said that these verses are not written in a style different from this gospel as a whole. That is to say, they are written in a rhythmic, meditative prose, a style common throughout John.

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 first five verses are built around a double theme: the eternal life of God and the created being of the world. These aspects of the theme are distinguished by the tense and form of their respective verbs.

First, with respect to God the verbal is the imperfect tense (denoting continued action in past time) of the verb eimi, “to be.” Thus, in verses 1-2 we have:

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.”

Second, with respect to Creation, the verbal form is the aorist tense (denoted a single time in the past) of the verb gignomi, “to become,” or “to come to be.” Thus, in verses 3-4 we have:

“All things came to be through Him,
and without Him nothing came to be.
What came to be in Him was life.”

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].”

Saturday, January 2

Genesis 2: To even the simplest reader of the Bible it is obvious that there are two accounts of Creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. Both of them are theological interpretations of the fact of Creation; more to the point, they are different theological interpretations, analogous to the differences we find among the four canonical Gospels. Genesis 1 deals with Creation from nothingness; that is to say, there is no pre-existent matter out of which God creates. The Hebrew word used to designate this Creation is barah. By spreading Creation over six days, followed by the Sabbath rest, the inspired author structures the Jewish week into the structure of time itself. He views man as the final product and pinnacle of Creation.

In this second account of Creation, in Chapter Two, everything takes place much faster. Although man is said to sleep, night is never mentioned. Here God is said to “form” (yasar), to give shape to; it is the word normally used for working in ceramics. Indeed, man is shaped from the moist soil, the mud, like the work of pottery to which Jeremiah will later compare him. In this chapter of Genesis the plants and animals are not created until after the creation of man. Man is created in order to take care of the plants (verse 7-15), while the animals are created to be man’s companions (verses 18-20). The very word for “man” is the Hebrew generic word for a human being, adam, related to the adamah, or the “soil” from which he comes.

It is from this first man, Adam, that the first woman is formed. More specifically, it is from the part of man closest to his heart, from the place where woman herself lives, at man’s side. But she comes from within him; when Adam sees her, he recognizes this “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” She is, as it were, part of him. The sexual attraction between men and women, in the eyes of the Bible, is metaphysical, having to do with an essential craving for inner wholeness (verse 24).

Jesus will later on appeal to this truth as the basis for His prohibition of divorce (Mark 10:8-9; 1 Corinthians 6:16-17; Ephesians 5:31-32). It also serves as the biblical argument against sexual activity outside of the marriage between a man and a woman. Any sexual activity that does not involve a man and a woman, married to one another, stands outside of the proper moral structure of human sexuality itself. This is one of the major applications of man’s transcendence to the animals.

Sunday, January 3

Genesis 3: When we think of Adam’s fall, there are two passive participles that should come forcefully to our minds: lost and cursed. These two words sum up the human condition without Christ.

First, man is lost. Worse, he continues to get lost. It is a mistake to think of the fallen human being as somehow looking for God. Indeed, the very opposite is true. When the human race fell in Adam, a kind of spiritual inertia came into play, a force that kept him going in the same direction—away from God. Of himself man had no power of initiative to reverse the movement. This is what is meant by the Fall.

If man was to return to God, God had to take the initiative. If God had not sought man out, he would keep going in the same direction—away. This is very clear in the biblical story of Adam’s hiding from God immediately after his disobedience. He and all his descendants would still be lying low there in the bushes if God had not come after him, inquiring, “Where are you?”

It was not that God did not know where to find Adam. It was Adam who was lost, rather, not God. God knew where Adam was, but Adam didn’t. God’s query, “Where are you?” was intended to wake lost man up to his real situation. As such, it was the first proclamation of the Gospel, the merciful word that began to reverse the direction of man’s existence. Indeed, it was the first step toward the mystery of the Incarnation.

Hence—to come to our second point—fallen man was cursed. In assigning punishment for the original sin, the Lord apparently accepted the order of guilt assigned by Adam and Eve. Accordingly, the snake was the first to be punished, then the woman, and finally the man (3:14-15).

The first word of God’s verdict is “cursed” (‘arur), because an historical curse is the lasting effect of the Fall. The curse incurred by fallen man was related to the very earth from which he was taken: “Cursed is the ground for your sake. . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread/ Till you return to the ground,/ For out of it you were taken;/ For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” The curse, that is to say, was man’s mortality. What Adam handed on was domination by death; “sin reigned in death” (Romans 5:21).

This is what Adam bequeathed to his offspring, “the reign of death.” To die without the grace of redemption is to die eternally. This is the real curse of death, because to die such a death is to be “lost” in a most radical way, lost in the sense of putting oneself beyond the possibility of being found.

Monday, January 4

Genesis 4: The first sin leads to the second. The original alienation in Chapter 3 becomes the murder in Chapter 4. Jealousy and violence are the proper products of that first act of infidelity. Cain, the first human being begotten of human parents, is also the first murderer. This murder was not committed in a fit of passion. Cain showed, by his response to God in verse 9, that he had closed off his heart to God. His disrespect for God was the foundation on which his murder was based. He could not have killed unless he had isolated himself from God.

Moreover, by this murder Cain alienated himself from the very ground on which he walked (verses 11-12). He had begun as a farmer, but now he is alienated from the soil. He has assumed, by his sin, the impossible task of being a wandering farmer. The foundational reason for Cain’s alienation from the earth and his fellow men is his alienation from God (verse 16).

At this point a new element enters the scene, vengeance. Cain is afraid of the retaliation that may be visited on his head because of his murder of Abel (verse 14). Violence begets violence. God’s reply to Cain in verse 15 is reassuring to Cain himself, but it further extends the domain of violence. If Cain is killed, the vengeance will be seven-fold!

1 John 3.10-15: 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.

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.

Tuesday, 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, for God removed him” (verse 24).

By way of commentary on this passage, the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “By faith Enoch was removed so that he should not see death, and was not found, because God removed him; for before his removal he was witnessed to have pleased 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 to God and was beloved of Him, so that, living among sinners, he was removed. 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 in a short time, he filled out massive times, for his soul pleased 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.”

Wednesday, January 6

Matthew 2:1-11: There is an important parallelism between the 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.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18 [19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

Although the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that ‘declare the glory of God’, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

Genesis 6: In the New Testament the Deluge, to which the next four chapters of Genesis are devoted, is understood as a type of baptism. Thus, St. Peter, writing of Christ’s descent into hell after His death, goes immediately to treat of Noah, the Deluge, our own baptisms, and the Lord’s resurrection. For the early Christians, these are all components of the same Mystery of regeneration:

“For Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, whole 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” (1 Peter 3:18-21).

We must be baptized, because we are sinners, and our sins are washed away in baptism: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Or earlier, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins” (2:38).

Thursday, January 7

Matthew 3.13-17: In addition to the manifestation of Christ’s glory to the Magi, the Church also celebrates, during this season, the revelation at his baptism. Indeed, there is a baptismal theme evident in all the readings chosen for this day.

The scene of the Lord’s baptism is the explicit revelation of God as Holy Trinity: The voice of the Father testifies to His Son, and the Holy Spirit, appearing in the form of a dove, confirms the truth of that witness. Jesus’ baptism by John was understood among the early Christians as being the inauguration of His ministry in this world (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37f; 13:23-25), which closes in Matthew by the great mandate to baptize all nations in the name of the Holy Trinity (28:19).

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).

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 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.”

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).