Friday, May 6

1 Corinthians 15.35-49: Paul goes beyond the mere unbelief of the Corinthian skeptics. He was pushing the question of the resurrection in a new direction, for the purpose of clarifying it. The skeptic, who pretends to dismiss the resurrection by asking what sort of body the dead rise in, is a fool, says Paul, because he contradicted the sovereign power of the Creator: “God gives a body as He pleases” (15:38). To deny God’s ability to raise the dead is to affirm that death lies beyond the reach of God’s power. This is an irrational, or foolish, claim.

Jesus, we recall, argued the same case when the Sadducees questioned him about the woman who had been married seven times. They, too, had raised a hypothetical objection to the resurrection: “Now there were seven brothers. . . . Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife” (Mark 12:18-23). In answering the Sadducees, Jesus put his finger on the lack of logic in their denial. It was based in part, he said, on their unfamiliarity with “the power of God” (12:24; cf. Acts 23:7).

Ezekiel 21: The deep, very personal lamentation in this text will remind the reader of Ezekiel’s older contemporary, Jeremiah, who expressed very much the same sentiments during that decade immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in 586.

There are four oracles in this chapter (the first oracle actually beginning in 20:45), three of them against Jerusalem, and the fourth against the Ammonite capital of Rabbah (the present city Amman, capital of the modern country of Jordan). Even as Ezekiel speaks, the Babylonian army, with its “well polished sword,” is already on the march toward those two cities.

The imagery alternates between fire (particularly a forest fire, with Jerusalem being the timber) and sword, both images combined in that of the lightning.

The references to the “Negev” in the first oracle (20:45—21:7) should be understood simply as “the south,” which is often the case in Ezekiel. The invading army, marching from Babylon, did not go directly westward toward Jerusalem, a march through the Arabian Desert being quite prohibitive. Instead, it marched up and around the Fertile Crescent, following the course of the Mesopotamian and Syrian rivers, so that now it has turned southward, in the direction of the Negev Desert, tramping toward Jerusalem and Rabbah.

In the second oracle (verses 8-17) Ezekiel addresses the Babylonian sword itself, which is the instrument of God’s vindication. The Babylonians, though they are acting as God’s instrument in history, do not know this, no more than a sword recognizes who wields it.

The third oracle (verses 18-27), continuing the image of the Babylonian sword, portrays another of Ezekiel’s symbolic actions, which must be explained to those who witness it. It pantomimes a fork in the road; which city, Jerusalem or Rabbah, will Nebuchadnezzar strike first?

The final oracle (verses 28-32) addresses to Rabbah the same threats that have been spoken to Jerusalem.

Saturday, May 7

John 6.15-21: John’s fifth sign—Jesus’ walking on the water—may seem at first to stand by itself, inasmuch as it physically affected only Jesus. A closer inspection of it, however, shows that even this sign benefited the apostles. That is to say, after hours of struggling against a strong head wind, they immediately discovered that their “boat was at the land where they were going.” Ironically, this story, also, has an expression of command, for Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid” (John 6:15-21).

Ezekiel 22: This chapter contains three oracular prophecies, joined together by a common theme: ritual uncleanness, understood either literally or as a metaphor. Ezekiel, as a priest dedicated entirely to the correct worship of the true God, was particularly sensitive to this matter of cleanness, or purity, in both the sacrifice and the priest.

The first oracle (verses 1-16), directed against Jerusalem, is full of the imagery of blood, any flowing of which rendered a person ritually unclean. Blood is also, however, an image of violence.

The second oracle (verses 17-22) is directed against all unfaithful Israelites, who are described as dross (that is, metallic impurity), which God will clean away in the coming smelting process of His historical judgment. Ezekiel doubts that any true metal will be found once this process is complete.

The third oracle (verses 23-31) is against the Holy Land itself, which suffers uncleanness because of those who live there. These have defiled God’s land with bloodshed and other forms of impurity, rendering the land unholy and no longer fit to contain the Lord’s true worship.

Psalms 12 (Greek & Latin 11): In Genesis 3 the Fall itself, when it came, derived from that demonic disassociation of speech from truth that we call the Lie: “You will not surely die.” Eve’s acquiescence in that first lie was mankind’s original act of metaphysical rebellion. It had more to do with the garbling of Babel than with the garden of Eden. It was human language’s first declaration of independence: “Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?”

Just as truthful speech streams forth from vision, springing from the font of a pure heart, so lying is conceived in the duplicitous heart before it issues from the mouth. Says Psalm 12: “Each one has spoken follies to his neighbor, deceitful lips have spoken with divided heart.” The situation described here is so bad that one despairs of finding any truths left in human discourse: “Save me, O God, for the godly man has disappeared, because truths are diminished among the sons of men. . . . The wicked prowl on every side.”

In contrast to these varied, seemingly universal lies of men stand the reliable words of God: “The words of the Lord are pure words, smelted silver purged of dross, purified seven times.” In this very unveracious world we yet trust that, though heaven and earth pass away, His words will never pass away.

Sunday, May 8

1 Corinthians 1.17-26: Theological reflection is always based on “the Word of Faith,” but God’s Word is also proclaimed through the enactment of the Sacraments. Today we read, for instance, what the Apostle Paul declares with respect to the Holy Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim (katangellete) the Lord’s death till he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

To grasp the full import of this declaration it is necessary, I believe, to give equal accent to each noun in the expression, “the Lord’s death.” If the accent is placed on “death,” the Eucharist is a proclamation of the event on Mount Calvary. If the accent is placed on “Lord,” the Eucharist is a proclamation of the Resurrection. It is, of course, both, because in the proclamation of the Gospel the Cross and the Resurrection are two aspects of the same mystery. Both are proclaimed in the Holy Eucharist.

Ezekiel 23: About to see the ruin of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, Ezekiel thinks back to the year 722 B.C., when the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel. As Samaria fell then, Jerusalem will fall now. How closely the two cases resembled one another, the prophet reflects, both cities unfaithful to God, like two loose women who could not be trusted. This comparison of the two cities is the basis of the long allegory that fills the present chapter.

Once again, Ezekiel traces the problem back to Egypt, where the Israelites first learned the seductions of idolatry (verse 3). Samaria, having handed herself over to Assyrian seductions, was finally destroyed by Assyria (verses 5-10). Jerusalem was worse, falling under the idolatrous sway of both Assyria and Babylon in turn (verses 11-18). In addition, as a final irony, Jerusalem was now turning once again to the gods of Egypt (verses 18-21), Ezekiel’s reference to King Zedekiah’s recent appeal to Egypt against the Babylonian overlord.

The various nations of the Fertile Crescent (verse 23), all now part of the Babylonian Empire, will attack Jerusalem from the north (verse 24). History, Ezekiel saw, was about to be repeated. Thus, in this chapter the prophet extends the metaphor of marital fidelity that was the theme of Chapter 16.

Monday, May 9

1 Corinthians 11.27–34: The Body of the Church is clearly an institution, not a general and abstract concept, and to it the Christian must adhere. There is no such thing as a private Christian. The Christian Church, the living Body to which the Christian adheres, is not merely an aid to a private Christian life. It is not as though “going to church makes it easier to be a Christian.” That is quite beside the point. The purpose of the Church is not to aid Christians in their Christian pursuit. It pertains to the very essence of their Christian pursuit. The Christian life , by its very nature, means life in the Christian Church.

The Christian Church is not an abstraction. It is an organization. And it is an organization because it is an organism, of which believers are living and active parts. Their personal and moral endeavors, therefore, are not directed solely to their own personal sanctification, but to the maintenance, well-being, growth, and perfection of the Body.

The Church is the Body of Christ, because it is formed by participation in the Lord’s sacramental Body in the Holy Eucharist. This is the burden of Paul’s argument here in First Corinthians. By their lack of charity and concern for one another, Paul contends, these sinful Corinthians are desecrating the very source that binds them together. They are failing to “discern” the Lord’s Body.

Ezekiel 24: This chapter is constructed of two quite separate parts, the first being the allegorical oracle of a pot cooking on the fire, the second a prophecy and prophetic action connected with the death of Ezekiel’s wife.

The first oracle (verses 1-14) is dated on January 15, 588 B.C., the day that Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. This siege is compared to the flames surrounding a pot until its contents are cooked. This pot is, of course, Jerusalem, where the long siege has begun. The rust on this metal pot, which is the same color as blood and is likened to blood, carries forward the image of dross from Chapter 22.

The second oracle (verses 15-27) is occasioned by the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife. He is not the only biblical prophet whose “home life” becomes part of the prophetic message. Thus, Hosea was obliged to marry a prostitute as part of his prophetic vocation, both Hosea and Isaiah were told to give strange and symbolic names to their children, and Jeremiah is commanded to remain celibate as a witness to the imminent passing of the era.

In the case of Ezekiel, he is ordered not to mourn at the death of his wife, no matter how grieved he feels. He must then interpret this strange behavior to his neighbors, giving him the opportunity to explain why, in their concrete historical circumstances, it would be inappropriate for them to mourn, even though their hearts are broken. Thus, in his grief Ezekiel himself becomes a “sign” to the people who are soon to see their beloved city destroyed.

Tuesday, May 10

1 Corinthians 10.1-13: Because the early Christians likened Baptism is to the Exodus, it is not surprising that the post-baptismal experience of Christians should be portrayed as a life-long journey of trial in the desert. We see this tonight in our reading from 1 Corinthians 10, for instance. It is expounded at greater lengthy in the third and four of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

In the biblical accounts of Israel’s ancient desert trial, Christians mainly find warnings about what not to do: “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:6) and “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).

The apostolic preaching remembered the desert wandering chiefly as a time of moral and spiritual failure. We see this in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 and in Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13 (verses 17-18).

Ezekiel 25: Chapters 25 through 32 of Ezekiel contain oracles directed against the other nations with whom the Lord has reason to be displeased, Israel’s neighbors to the east and west (Chapter 25), the north (Chapters 26 to 28), and the south (Chapters 29 to 32). Chapter 25 is critical of the neighbors to the east (the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites) and to the west (Philistines).

Those to the east are criticized in order, going from north to south. Since the oracles refer to the unseemly and unconscionable rejoicing of these nations at Jerusalem’s destruction, they should be dated no earlier than the summer of 586. Otherwise, the oracles in this chapter are not dated.

Oracles of this sort, scathing moral criticisms of Israel’s neighbors, go back to the earliest of Israel’s literary prophets, Amos, in the eighth century before Christ. Ezekiel’s references to the “people of the East,” who will punish these offending nations, may refer to the Babylonians, but the reference is perhaps more probably to the marauding Bedouin tribes that frequently attacked from the Arabian Desert.

Wednesday, May 11

Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiakin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.

In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.

Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.

Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)

Ezekiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question: “How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin.

Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear.

Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.

Thursday, May 12

John 6.60-71: In this passage we perceive the contrast between Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot, a contrast centered on the Bread of Life. Peter’s faith in the divinity of Jesus is what enables him to handle the “hard saying” about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. If this pronouncement of Jesus implied only a figurative sense (The bread is a symbol of my body and this wine is a symbol of my blood), this would hardly be a “hard saying.” Indeed, anybody could say it—Socrates, Buddha, Pat Reardon, anybody. Eat this bread and drink this wine in memory of me requires no faith at all. But if the bread and wine truly are the flesh and blood of Christ in a real and literal sense, then Jesus is either a sham or he is the Son of God. Peter goes with the second option.

In this respect Peter is contrasted here with Judas, who finds this “hard saying” of Jesus unbelievable. He, too, Jesus tells us, makes his choice. Judas’s betrayal is now mentioned for the first time in John’s Gospel.

Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.

A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwrights from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.

Friday, May 13

Ezekiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles: one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon. In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty.

The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power. As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Quite self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment.

Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of man’s initial rebellion in Eden. Satan had tempted Tyre as he had tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought itself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. “Stones of fire” (28:13f)—a most striking image—pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.)

The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the Phoenicians’ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes Tyre’s expulsion from the garden of Eden with Israel’s restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of Adam’s fall (verse 24).

Psalms 33 (Greek & Latin 32): Here, for the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression—“new song,” shir chadash—which will later appear four more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: “Sing to Him a new song” (see Psalms 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10). The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our “new song” has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave His life for our redemption: “You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood.” The new song is for those who have been made “kings and priests to our God” (5:10). The new song is “the song of the Lamb” (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1–3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”