Friday, November 25

Luke 21.20-28: In Luke’s version of this discourse, the Lord’s prophecy is plainly spoken, and simply as a matter of fact. It is not loaded with eschatological significance, not regarded as an immediate harbinger of the final times. ?We note in particular Luke’s omission of the Abomination of Desolation (cf. Mark 13:14; Daniel 9:27; 12:11; 1 Maccabees 1:57).

When the invading Roman legions arrive to besiege the city, flight is the only rational response, because Jerusalem will offer no protection to those who remain there (verses 21-22). As a point of history, before the siege was established, the Christians in Jerusalem fled eastward across the Jordan to Pella (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 3.5.3). Warned by Jesus’ prophecy of the city’s fall, they did not stay around to defend it.

Indeed, they felt no special loyalty to the very city that had rejected the Messiah, certainly that a level of loyalty that would prompt them to stay and defend the place against a doom they knew to be inevitable. That decision of the Jerusalem Christians, which separated them from so many of their countrymen, doubtless contributed to the further alienation of Christians and Jews.

Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).

The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.

Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11).

It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.

Saturday, November 26

Psalms 66 (Greek & Latin 65): The reference to the drying up of the waters in this psalm suggests that its original context was the celebration of the Passover and Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, themes manifestly understood in the New Testament as types of the new Christian Pascha: “He turns the sea into dry land; through the river they will walk on foot.”

There is further reason for believing that Christian tradition has ever understood this psalm as referring to the mystery of Pascha. Most Greek biblical manuscripts of it add a single word supplementing the inscription. To the psalm’s Hebrew title, which reads simply “To the choirmaster—a song—a psalm,” the majority of Greek manuscripts adjoin the word anastaseos, “of the resurrection,” a reading that is followed in the Latin tradition as well. Thus, according to the general Christian manuscript tradition of this psalm, it is “a psalm of the resurrection.”

The “works” of God being celebrated in this psalm, then, and for which we give thanks to His name, have to do with His accomplishing of our redemption in the paschal mystery, the death and Resurrection of Christ our Lord. This is a psalm about the passage from death to life, for the enemies of the human race are sin and death. It is from these that Christ has set us free, restoring us to eternal favor with God: “He set my soul in life and does not let my footsteps falter. For You, O God, have tested us, You have smelted us as silver. You have brought us into a trap; You laid affliction on our back, and caused men to lord it over us. We passed through fire and water, but You have brought us back to life.”

The sense and sentiment of this psalm, then, are identical to the victory canticles in Exodus 15 and Revelation 15, celebrating the destruction of oppressive and death-dealing forces at Israel’s deliverance from slavery. Psalm 66 may be thought of as another “seaside psalm,” but this sea is “mingled with fire” (Rev. 15:2). Beside it stand the redeemed of the Lord, and “they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: ‘Great and marvelous are Your works, / Lord God Almighty” (15:3). These are the “works” of our paschal redemption. “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast,” wrote St. Paul at Passover season, only two decades or so into Christian history (1 Cor. 5:7).

Sunday, November17

Psalms 71 (Greek & Latin 70): The psalmist prays, “For You are my patience, O Lord. From my youth the Lord has been my hope. I have leaned on You from my very birth; since my mother’s womb have You been my defense. . . . Oh, forsake me not as the years advance, nor cast me aside when my strength is spent. . . . From my youth have You taught me, O God, and unto this day Your wonders I declare. And unto old age and hoary head, O God, forsake me not.”

Those who pray the psalms are aware that, in spite of their own infidelities to God over the years, God has nonetheless remained faithful. Were that not the case, they would not be praying the psalms at all.

This sense of God’s lifelong fidelity is at the heart of the Christian experience. In the middle of the second century, put on trial for his faith in Jesus and pressured either to renounce that faith or die a violent death, the venerable Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, responded to his judge: “For eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme the King who saved me?”

Trial and trouble, nonetheless, shape the context of fidelity in this psalm, as they did in the long life of Polycarp: “My God, deliver me from the hand of the sinner, from the law-breaker and the wicked. . . . For mine enemies have spoken against me, and there is a conspiracy among those that stalk my soul. They say, ‘God has forsaken him. Hound him down and catch him, for there is none to deliver him.’” This is the persecution of which our Lord spoke so often in the Gospels, saying that it would be the constant lot of those who bear His name.

The many trials mentioned in this psalm are well known to the servants of Christ, one of whom described himself as “in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:23–27).

And what does the servant of God do in the midst of such trials? According to our psalm, he is chiefly engaged in praising God: “I will sing psalms to You on the harp, O Holy One of Israel. My mouth will proclaim Your righteousness, and all day long Your salvation. . . . My lips will exult when I sing to You, and my soul which You have redeemed. And all day long will my tongue meditate on Your righteousness.” Once again the ministry of the Apostle Paul is most instructive in this respect. One remembers how Paul, after being beaten at Philippi, sang songs of praise during the night in his jail cell. One recalls that he uses words for “joy” in a letter that he wrote from a prison cell (that is, the Epistle to the Philippians) more often than in any other of his letters.

Monday, November 28

Luke 21.29-38: Throughout the era of the Church there will be times when the fig tree will appear to have died. Nothing looks deader than a fig tree in the wintertime. We may see in the harsh conditions of winter an image of the many persecutions and hardships that the persevering community of Christ must endure until the spring of His return.

One thinks, in this connection, of the condition of the Christian Church behind the Iron Curtain for so many decades, in such places as Russia and Poland. From the outside it certainly appeared to be, in not dead, at least near death. As soon as the Iron Curtain was brought down, however, immediately the new buds appear. The tree had been alive all along.

About the year 252, an African Christian bishop, Cyprian of Carthage wrote with respect to these verses, “the Lord had foretold that these things would happen. Instructing with the voice of His foreknowledge, teaching, preparing, and strengthening the people of His Church unto all endurance of things that lay in the future. He foretold and declared that wars, famines, earthquakes, and plagues in each place. And lest an unexpected and new fear of evils should overtake us, He earlier warned us that in the final times adversities would grow more and more (De Mortalitate 2).

The nearness (eggys) of the spring (verse 30) symbolizes the nearness (eggys) of the Kingdom of God (verse 31). This is identical to the nearness (eggizei) of our redemption (verse 28). ??Until then, the Lord’s disciples are to cling to His words. These words will remain steadfast, even if everything else passes away (verse 33).??In speaking of the words of Christ in this fashion, Luke takes up again his own final verse of the explanation of the parable of the sower: “But that on the good ground are they, which in a noble and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” (8:15). That Lukan emphasis on purity of heart comes here again in verse 34 (compare 8:14).

The latter part of this reading (verses 34-38) bears notable affinity to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. For example, the exhortation to avoid excessive drinking and eating, lest we be overtaken suddenly by the events of the final times (verses 34-36) is very reminiscent of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.?? The stress on constant prayer (verse 36) is, of course, very typical of Luke (cf. 18:1). ??Verse 36, which contains the last of Jesus’ public teaching in Luke, calls forth ideas contained in the beginning of Jesus’ public teaching. For instance, it speaks of endurance for the sake of the returning Son of Man (cf. 6:20-23; 9:26). ??Verses 37-38, which prepare immediately for the account of the Lord’s Passion, portray Him as teaching each day in the Temple, beginning early (orthrizen), after spending the night in prayer on the Mount of Olives. It was, Luke will tell us (22:39), the “custom” of Jesus to pray there during the night. This pattern is also found in John 8:1-2.

Tuesday, November 29

Luke 22.1-13: Although Luke agrees with Mark and Matthew placing the events of Holy Week in the context of the Passover, he is less precise than the others with placing those events on particular days. (This trait would explain why Luke is less used in the traditional daily lectionaries of the Christian Church during Holy Week.) Thus, for instance, we are not told here on what day the Sanhedrin met to plot the death of Jesus (contrast Luke here with Mark and Matthew). ??Writing for Gentiles, Luke is not careful to distinguish Passover from the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows it. In this respect he resembles Josephus (Antiquities 3.10.5), who was also writing for Gentile readers.

In addition Luke does not specify how Judas was to betray Christ to His enemies, nor does he indicate how much money Judas was to receive for doing so. Luke explains the entire episode by saying that Satan entered into Judas (verse 4; John 13:2,27; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:8). In Luke it is apparent that the Passion is a battle between Jesus and Satan.??In this respect the Passion in Luke takes up where the early Temptations scene left off. At that time, we recall, after Jesus had resisted all of SatanÕs blandishments, Luke remarked that Satan left Him for a while (4:13). The ÒwhileÓ is over. Now Satan returns in dead earnest.

The time has now arrived, declares Luke. All the previous parts of his account have led to this moment. From the beginning of his story, when the life of the First Born Son was redeemed by two turtle dove or young pigeons (2:24), through the Lord’s entire earthly life, during which His face was steadfastly set toward Jerusalem, all has been directed to this hour when the Paschal Lamb (to pascha; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7; Deuteronomy 16:26) would be offered and the new Exodus (9:31) inaugurated.

All of this must happen, says Luke, using one of his typical words, dei (cf. 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 24:7,26,44).

Luke is the only Evangelist to name Peter and John as the two apostles deputed to make the Seder arrangements for Jesus and the apostolic band (verse 8). Luke’s considerable attention to these two apostles (cf. Acts 3:1,3; 4:13,19; 8:14) suggests that they may have been among the chief sources of his information about the events of Holy Week. Indeed, among the three Synoptic Evangelists, Luke’s account most resembles that of John’s Gospel.

Verse 7 refers not only to the impending annual sacrifice of the paschal lamb in obedience to the Mosaic Law, but also to the approaching immolation of the true Paschal Lamb on the following day, the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Wednesday, November 30

The Feast of Saint Andrew: The Evangelist tells us, “Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do” (John 6:5–6).

What, we are justified in asking, was accomplished by this question to Philip, since Jesus already “knew what He would do”? His question here served the purpose of evoking the assistance of the apostles in what was about to take place.

Jesus did not ask that question for Philip’s sake, I believe, but for Andrew’s. They were a pair. He knew that wherever you saw Philip, Andrew must be nearby. The question was apparently meant to be overheard by Andrew, who promptly replied, “There is a lad here who has five barley buns and a couple of dried fish” (John 6:9). Now they could get started!

Thus, by putting to Philip a question to which he already knew the answer, Jesus transformed these apostles—Andrew and Philip, in particular—from mere spectators to active participants in the experience of the multiplication of the loaves. It is they who will seat the people for the meal (John 6:10).

It is they who will distribute the bread and fish (6:11). In this scene, then, Jesus’ question both commences the event and provides for its participatory structure.

Now, the attentive reader of Holy Scripture should be asking a question of the text at this point, namely, just how did Andrew know that there was a little boy present who was carrying those articles of food? It is unlikely, after all, that a small boy would be holding all seven items in his hands at the same time. The five barley loaves and two little fish must have been carried in a sack of some sort. The lad was part of a large multitude that had been with Jesus for some days, and his mother had packed him several meals in a lunch bag.

So how did Andrew know what was contained in that little boy’s bag? Surely the answer is obvious. He noticed the child standing near him, maybe alone, perhaps a bit distracted, and he simply asked in a cordial, engaging way, “Say there, son, what all did your mama pack for you in that sack?”

Jesus knew what He would do, but also knew the character and qualities of Andrew. He knew Andrew to be solicitous, and he also knew that Andrew, being solicitous, would be well informed about possibilities.

Yet, Jesus did not ask Andrew directly. He could have, surely, so it seems significant that He did not. Instead, He made the inquiry to Philip. This indirect address of the question—asking Philip but expecting the answer from Andrew—intimates the Lord’s notice and special regard for this Apostle.

Thursday, December 1

Revelation 12.1-6: John’s vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a “sign,” an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like the sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second-magnitude beta, and omicron.

Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).

The serpent, of course, is the ancient dragon that is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.

Psalms 80 (Greek & Latin 79): In this psalm we Christians pray for our own conversion: “You who sit upon the Cherubim, reveal Yourself to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh; stir up Your might and come to save us.” Then, three times comes the refrain that makes the same prayer: “Convert (epistrepson) us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved.” The order in this refrain is important, in that God shows His face only to the converted—“when one turns [or “is converted” (epistrepse)] to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). So the psalm prays for a conversion, a change in our hearts, that we may behold the glory of God and thereby be saved.

But it is important to note that this is a prayer of the Church, a petition for conversion made by those who are, presumably, already converted and already have been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift, and already were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and already have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. Even these, our psalm is saying, still need even further to be converted and further to be saved.

Neither conversion nor salvation is a once-and-for-all thing in Holy Scripture, where the often repeated command to “repent” appears invariably in the Greek present imperative tense. This grammatical form means something much closer to “keep on repenting.” According to the sustained exhortation in Hebrews, those who have already repented should still be careful about “the sin which so easily ensnares us” (12:1). Similarly with respect to “being saved”; in the Bible words about salvation are more often used in the future tense than in a past tense. Thus, this prayer—“O Lord of hosts, convert us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved”—is always appropriate to our state. The Church is the body of those who are constantly being converted and saved.

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.”