Sunday, December 29
The Feast of St. Thomas Becket: Today is sacred to the
memory of the Archbishop of Canterbury killed by the henchmen of King Henry
II of England in 1170. Throughout the late Middle Ages and until it was
destroyed by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, Becket's tomb was one of
the most revered shrines in Christendom and the site of many healings and
other miracles. Indeed, the many pilgrims who rode to Canterbury on
horseback adopted a pace that came to be called the "canter," and one such
group of pilgrims was immortalized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Becket himself, who eventually gave his life on behalf of the freedom of
the church from state interference, had originally been picked as archbishop
by Henry because the latter believed that he would be docile to royal
control. There was every reason to believe that such would be the case.
Becket had been a worldly man, much given to fine clothes and frequent
partying, and showing very little interested in the church or any other
godly concerns. Upon his becoming archbishop, however, his Christian
conversion was quick, deep and dramatic.
Becket has now once again become famous through various books, plays and
movies. Perhaps no one has better expressed the spirit of Becket than T. S.
Eliot in his play Murder in the Cathedral, where he puts the following lines
on the martyr's lips just before he dies:
It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.
No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for His death.
Monday, December 30
Psalm 21 (Greek and Latin 20): The voice of this psalm
is voice of the Church herself, glorifying the Father for the Son's victory
over sin, death, and hell. The proper sense of this psalm may be summarized
as: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed
us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. . . . In
Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins,
according to the riches of His grace" (Ephesians 1:3,7).
The psalm begins then, "O Lord, the King will rejoice in Your strength, and
greatly will He exult in Your salvation." This is the rejoicing of "Jesus,
the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before
Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right
hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). The paschal victory is God's
response to Christ's own prayer: "You have given Him His heart's desire, nor
have You denied Him the request of His lips." The Gospels themselves suggest
that the passing hours of our Lord's suffering were a period of His intense
prayer, indicated by His several audible prayers that were recorded during
that time (cf. Matthew 26:39,42,44; 27:46; Luke 23:34,46). With respect to
this prayer of Jesus during His sufferings we are told that "He was heard
for His reverence" (Hebrews 5:8).
And for what did Jesus pray during His Passion? "He asked life of You,"
answers our psalm. And what sort of life? The mere survival of his earthly
body? Hardly. The object of Jesus' prayer was, rather, the total life that
stands forever victorious over death, the irruption of the divine life into
the world by reason of His own passage through death to glory. The true
eternal life is not a simple continuation of man's earthly existence. It is
something new altogether: "He asked life of You, and You gave Him length of
days unto ages of ages." This is the divine life given in the resurrection,
of which Jesus said: "Amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is,
when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will
live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to
have life in Himself" (John 5:25f). This eternal life is joy forever in
God's presence, "whither the Forerunner is for us entered" (Hebrews 6:20):
"Great is His glory in Your salvation; You will bestow glory and majesty
upon Him. Blessing will You give Him forever and ever; You will gladden Him
with joy in Your presence."
By reason of His resurrection, says this psalm, Jesus reigns as King, the
very title that Pilate, in God's providential irony, affixed to the cross
itself: "O Lord, the King will rejoice in Your strength." And because He is
King, He is crowned: "For You have poured upon Him the blessings of
goodness. A crown of precious stones have You placed upon His head." Once
again, this was the glorification for which Jesus prayed as He commenced the
unfolding of His Passion: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that
Your Son also may glorify You. . . . And now, Father, glorify Me together
with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world began"
Many lines of this psalm, pretty much its entire second half, are devoted to
the enemies of Christ, who are enemies of Christ precisely because they are
the enemies of man. That enemy called sin, overcome by the atoning grace of
His blood. That enemy called death, which He trampled down by His own death.
That enemy called hell, which found itself unable to hold the Author of
life. Psalm 21 thus celebrates the victory of Him who proclaims: "Do not be
afraid. I am the first and the last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and
behold I am alive for evermore. Amen. And I have the keys of hell and of
death" (Revelation 1:17-8).
Tuesday, December 31
Psalm 90 (Greek and Latin 89): One recalls Isaac
Watts's paraphrase of this psalm: "O God, our help in ages past,/ our hope
for years to come,/ our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal
home./ . . . Before the hills in order stood,/ or earth received her frame;/
From everlasting Thou art God,/ to endless years the same."
God is eternal, but man is frail. Even as we go forth to our daily labor,
we know that work is now onerous because we are fallen creatures. Even as we
endeavor to labor in such a way as to manifest the glory of God, the
difficulty of the work itself, along with the weariness that attends it,
bears witness to the Fall of our first parents and the curse laid upon our
race - that we labor until we die: "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in
toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. . . . In the sweat of
your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground from which you
were taken." Psalm 90 likewise gives voice to the sentiments of a folk thus
cursed: "You turn man to destruction, and say: 'Return, O children of men.'
. . . You carry them away like a flood, like a dream. In the morning they
are like grass that grows up; in the morning it thrives and flourishes, but
in the evening it is cut down and withers."
The flow of the years, the passage of days into nights, conducts us all
to death. Even as we go forth to our labor at the beginning of the day, it
is without guarantee of returning home at its end: "For we have been
consumed by Your anger, and by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our
iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For
all our days are passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a
sigh." Once again, Isaac Watts paraphrased our psalm: "Time, like an
ever-rolling stream,/ bears all its sons away;/ they fly, forgotten, as a
dream/ dies at the opening day."
The eternal God, however, is outside of time, abiding beyond the
vicissitudes of this earth. To Him the passage of time seems no more than an
instant: "For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is
past, and like a watch in the night." Watts translated this line in the
stanza that reads: "A thousand ages in Thy sight/ are like an evening gone,/
short as the watch that ends the night,/ before the rising sun."
Second Peter 3:8 quotes this same line of our psalm to remind Christians
that God is not subject to our own sense of time: "But, beloved, do not
forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years,
and a thousand years as one day."
God's treasure here below is borne in vessels of clay, for of the mire He
made us to be the very bearers of His glory. Because we are also creatures
of the Fall, our own tilling of the soil Ü that is to say, our labor to
support our lives in this world Ü is infected with the forces of death. At
the same time, by reason of our incorporation into Christ, our daily labor
may also share in the first fruits of redemption, our glorification as God's
children. Our daily work, done for the sake of His glory, may become the
medium by which that glory is rendered manifest. Such are the proper
sentiments with which to close out the year that is passing into history
Wednesday, January 1
Genesis 1: There is considerable advantage in reading
the opening chapters of Genesis right after reading the final chapters of
Revelation. Genesis was perhaps not the first book of the Bible to be
written, and it is likely that Revelation was not the last book of the Bible
to be written. Nonetheless, because the Holy Spirit is ultimately the Author
of both books, and inasmuch as the Holy Spirit planned the entire corpus of
Holy Scripture (which means that even the Bible's "table of contents" is
divinely inspired!), it should not surprise us that the final pages of the
Bible close with reflections on matters that were originally introduced in
the opening pages of the Bible. When Revelation, then, says that "there be
no more curse" (22:3), this is a reference to that primeval curse brought on
our race near the Bible's very beginning.
This opening chapter of Genesis has always been a favorite for Christian
commentators down through the ages, and they discovered in its lines
profound levels of meaning. In this respect it is worth remarking that
ancient Christian writers would have been very surprised to hear of the more
modern idea that the "seven days" of Creation were, each of them, periods of
twenty-four hours. They would have asked, in this respect, exactly what any
strict adherence to logic would require us to ask, namely, "How could that
be, since there was no way yet to measure time?" That is to say, a
twenty-four hour day requires the rotation of the earth with respect to the
sun. The sun, however, was not created until the fourth day.
Indeed, this is partly the point. The setting and rising of the sun are
not what determine day and night. We moderns think of the sunlight as that
which creates the day, and the absence of sunlight as that which creates
night. The Bible and its ancient commentators would have thought this a very
shallow notion of day and night, light and darkness. In biblical thought,
the sun "marks" the day; it does not create it. The day would be here, so to
speak, whether the sun rose or not. The purpose of the sun is to enable us
see that it is day. Evening and morning, however, already existed for three
days before there ever was a sun.
Day and night are simply the names of light and darkness (verse 5); light
and darkness exist independent of the sun or any other heavenly body. We
note that Genesis does not say that God creates darkness; darkness was, so
to speak, already there. Darkness is nothingness; it is non-existence.
Therefore night itself is symbolic of non-existence. This is why night will
eventually disappear (Revelation 22:5).
Light, on the other hand, is the first creation of God; "Let there be light"
are His first recorded words (verse 3). The light, then, and the darkness,
which are called day and night, refer to something far deeper in Creation
than the phenomena that our eyes behold. Light is not simply a by-product of
solar energy. It is, rather, the principle of intelligibility in the
structure of Creation. The light that God calls into being at the beginning
of Genesis is that inner structure of intelligibility that the mind of man,
in due course, will be created to discover and investigate. Man's
investigation of the light is called philosophy, just as his investigation
of God's Word is called theology.
In the biblical narrative of the creation, it is noteworthy that the
original day of creation is not designated "the first" day. It is called,
rather, "one day" (yom ?ehad). Although this difference of expression in
Genesis 1:5 has proved too subtle for virtually all biblical translations
into modern languages, its significance caused it to be maintained in the
ancient versions, such as the Septuagint (hemera mia) and the Vulgate (dies
unus). In addition, that difference of expression ("one day" instead of
"first day") was the object of explicit discussion in nearly all ancient
commentaries on Genesis 1:5, whether Jewish (e.g., Philo and Rashi) or
Christian (e.g., Basil and Augustine). Alas, the difference seems
excessively subtle to modern minds who come to the first chapter of Genesis
as though it were a text of astrophysics.
In those ancient and classical commentaries on this biblical text, moreover,
we find the common assertion that the words "one day" served to elevate
that day of Creation to something more than part of a sequence. There is a
profound reason why the original day of creation is appropriately called
"one," whereas the second day is not appropriately called "two," nor the
third day "three," and so forth. The original day is "one" in a manner
analogous to the number itself. "One" is not simply the numeral that
precedes two; it is, rather, the number out of which that second number
comes. There is a formal disparity between one and the other numbers. One
(to hen) is the font determining the identity of two and the subsequent
numbers. "One" is not just "first" as part of a sequence; it is what we call
a principle, an arche. On "day one," then, God creates light, which He
thereby separates from darkness. It is out of this light, which is the
product of God's first creating word, that all the rest of Creation comes.
All things that God makes are filled with His light. God's light lies
shining at the heart of the world.
Thursday, January 2
Genesis 2: (The following comments presuppose a reading
of the notes on pages 33-34 of the current edition of The St. James Daily
Devotional Guide.) 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.
Still, this first human being is a male. (The word for "human being" in all
languages, by the way, is unvaryingly masculine; for example, ha'adam in
Hebrew, ho anthropos in Greek, 'n™sh™' in Syriac, al-insan in Arabic,
chelovyek in Russian, der Mensch in German, de man in Dutch, zmogťs in
Lithuanian, man in English, homo in Latin, along with its multiple
derivatives in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and French. And so
forth. These are all masculine nouns. Contrary to the contemporary conceit
that pretends otherwise, there is no such thing as a non-gendered, a
gender-neutral noun for a human being. While the sex of an actual human
being is either male or female, the gender of the designating noun is
invariably masculine. This distinction, alas, tends to be lost on those who,
confusing grammar with biology, confuse gender with sex.)
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.
Friday, January 3
Genesis 3: (The following comments presuppose a reading
of the notes on pages 34-36 of the current edition of The St. James Daily
Devotional Guide.) We notice several things about the Fall. First, Adam and
Eve become aware of themselves as naked, as exposed. They are no longer
comfortable with themselves (verse 7). They hide from God (verse 8). Then,
when God questions Adam, the latter immediately casts the blame on his wife,
and indirectly on God Himself, who gave Adam that wife (verses 11-12). Eve,
in her turn blames the snake (verse 12). God then curses all three, in
reverse order: first the snake (verses 14-15), then Eve (verse 16), and
finally Adam (verses 17-19).
Even as God drives Adam and Eve from the garden, however, He provides
better clothing for them (verse 21). This is important. Man's sin created
the problem of nakedness, and hence the solution of clothing, as described
here in Genesis 3. In the Bible's final book, nonetheless, when man's sin
has in every last sense been conquered, we do not see the human race
returned to the nakedness of its primitive, unfallen state. The new man is
Christ is clothed. We are described in the Book of Revelation as wearing the
white robes of glory. Grace, that is to say, does more than reverse the
effects of sin; it transforms the effects of sin. Our new innocence in
Christ is not to be identified as simply the earlier innocence of Adam. The
effect of sin is not merely removed; it is assumed into a more ample
As we go on in Genesis and the rest of Holy Scripture we will meet other
examples of this mysterious transformation of certain human experiences,
especially cultural forms, that are associated in their origin, or at
least their earliest historical expression, with the Fall. That is to say,
the new life in Christ includes His taking hold of and entirely remolding
certain components of life that were not part man's original, innocent
state. Even as He vanquishes sin, God does not simply undo or reverse the
effects of man's Fall. Rather, He assumes these same effects, particularly
cultural effects, into a larger expression of man's ascent.
The human race has fallen in Chapter 3. Man is about to fall even lower in
Saturday, January 4
Genesis 4: This chapter does not tell why God favored
Abel's sacrifice, while rejecting that of Cain. For the answer to this
question we must go to Hebrews 11:4: "By faith Abel offered to God a more
excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was
righteous, God testifying of his gifts." We also observe that this is the
first of many biblical instances where God chooses the younger son over the
elder (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph and David over their
older brothers, and so forth).
In verse 7 the Lord describes evil as "lying at the door" in wait for
Cain. Temptation is portrayed as lurking for a man, stalking him, and Cain
is exhorted to vigilance, lest he be taken by it. The Hebrew participle for
"lying" here, robesh, may be better translated as "crouching." It is related
to the name of a god in Assyro-Babylonian literature known as "Rabishu," who
is described as crouching along the road, endeavoring to waylay the
traveler. Cain is warned not to fool with it; it is dangerous. Cain's
mother, after all, had made the big mistake of dialoguing with the snake.
Satan, however, invariably wins over those who discuss things with him. Or,
as we read in Sirach 21:2, "Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent, for
if you come too near to it, it will bite you."
Cain pays no heed, nonetheless, and goes on to kill his brother (verses
8-10). 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!
Then comes the building of the first city (verse 17), and it is
manifestly ironical that this first great effort at this exercise of social
cooperation was inaugurated by a murderer! What is said of clothing seems
also true of what we may call "urban life." God did not, at the beginning,
place man in a city but in a garden. The city was fallen man's idea. The
first city was founded by the first murderer. Indeed, the first city was
founded by the first fratricide, a fact that becomes the most ironical of
archetypes. The irony was certainly not lost on St. Augustine, who commented
at some length on the manifest travesty that such a great enterprise of
brotherly cooperation should be started by a man that killed his brother. In
his lengthy The City of God, the saintly bishop of Hippo went on to compare
Cain's founding of the city of Enoch to the founding of the city of Rome by
Romulus, who had killed Remus, his own brother. Man's efforts, that is to
say, are constructed with the elements of their own deterioration. Merely
human efforts only disguise man's plight for a while. The heart of all evil
is alienation from God, so any society founded on that alienation has
already drunk poison. It will surely die.
It is abundantly curious that Cain's descendents take up, among other
things, the crafting of musical instruments. This is another example of a
cultural form conceived in evil, but which God takes special care to redeem.
What we said about clothing and urban life also applies to musical
instruments. Originally crafted by a descendent of Cain, they do not look
promising at first. Moreover, there has often been something a bit
problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar
employed "the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in
symphony with all kinds of music" for his idolatrous purposes, it was not
the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the
worship of the true God. Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical
instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the
temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be
a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp. Moreover, as an
added irony, instrumental music is eventually limited so exclusively to the
saints in heaven that the damned in hell are forever deprived of such music!
The sinful descendents of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will
never hear them again, inasmuch as the "sound of harpists, musicians,
flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore" (Revelation
18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed.
Sunday, December 22
Psalm 84: This psalm commences on the note of longing:
"How beloved Your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts. My soul longs and faints
for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the
living God." Immediately, however, the tone is transformed into one of
secure resting in God's presence: "For the sparrow has found herself a
haven, and the turtle-dove a nest for herself, where she may lay her young -
even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God." Sharing the
psalmist's view of its symbolic propriety, generations of both Jews and
Christians have loved this ancient poetic record about Palestinian birds
constructing their nests in the wall niches of Solomon's temple. This is the
endearing sight that prompts one to speak of "my King and my God."
But Solomon's famous construction, we know, was a figure passing away, for
now "a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew 12:42). The true and lasting
temple of God, the term of our longing and the abode of our rest, is Christ
the Lord. He is "greater than the temple" (12:6). So in this psalm we pray:
"Give regard, O God, our Protector, and gaze on the face of Your Christ."
This image of Jesus as God's true temple, which provides the proper
Christological key to Psalm 84, is indicated in the Gospel according to St.
John. Fairly early in that Gospel, when Jesus speaks of the destruction of
the temple, the evangelist notes: "But He was speaking of the temple of His
body" (John 2:21). This body of Christ, in the Johannine context, is His
resurrected flesh and blood, the permanent and even physical abiding place
of God's presence. John will say of heaven: "But I saw no temple in it, for
the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Revelation 21:22).
Monday, December 23
Revelation 22:12-21: This final chapter of Revelation
resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which
is that Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the
Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the
references to Jesus' swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain
solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the
hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there
waiting for Him. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing
In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly
sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that
the angels give to God (verses 8-9).
Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the
final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the
reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude, the fullness of
communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 have
something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this
book has said.
In referring to those "outside" the City, John is relying on an ancient
Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called "excommunication," which
literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache
9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1). One of the major problems of the
Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the
world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its
identity threatened if it does not maintain "lines" that separate it from
the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament,
we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This
preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced "them and us"
mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to
maintain if the Church is to preserve its own identity down through history.
Tuesday, December 24
Psalm 45 (Greek and Latin 44): "The kingdom of
heaven," we are instructed, "is like a king who arranged a marriage for his
son" (Matthew 22:2), that marriage's consummation being the definitive aim
of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares
and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end
of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: "Behold, the bridegroom is
coming; go out to meet him" (25:6).
This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding
ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians,
taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little
thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct
danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation
This psalm anticipates and most descriptively foretells the royal wedding of
the Lamb to His Bride, which we have been considering in the final chapters
of the Book of Revelation: "The royal daughter is all glorious within the
palace; her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in
robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be
brought to You. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought; they
shall enter the King's palace."
Inasmuch as "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31)
- a truth of which the Book of Revelation also informs us - a certain
measure of detachment is necessary to prepare ourselves for the wedding
feast of the King's Son, a certain using of this world as though not using
it, a refusal to take seriously its unwarranted claims on our final loyalty.
So our psalm once again warns us: "Listen, O daughter. Consider and incline
you ear; forget your own people also, and your father's house. So the King
will greatly desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, worship Him."
Wednesday, December 25
Psalm 85 (Greek and Latin 84): "Unto us a Child is
born," the prophet wrote, "unto us a Son is given" (Isaiah 9:6). And he
wrote these things with respect to the Incarnation of the divine Son
becoming a human Child. Both aspects of this Christian mystery, which Isaiah
perceived so lucidly (cf. John 12:41), were likewise seen by the Wise Men
who came with adoration to welcome this Newcomer to the scene, the divine
Son and human Child. In the late fourth century St. Ambrose of Milan
commented on these Wise Men: "When they looked upon the little one in the
stable, they said: 'Unto us a Child is born.' And when they beheld His star,
they exclaimed: 'Unto us a Son is given.' On the one hand, a gift from
earth, and on the other a gift from heaven, for both are one Person, perfect
in both respects, with no change in His divinity, and no diminution of His
humanity. Only one Person did these Wise Men adore, and to one and the same
did they present their gifts, showing that He who was beheld in the stall
was the very Lord of the stars" (De Fide 3.8.54).
Psalm 85 is a further canticle honoring both aspects of the Incarnation, for
the latter event is that history-defining encounter of two worlds, wherein
"the Lord will grant His mercy, and our earth shall give its fruit." "Truth
has arisen from the earth," we pray in this psalm, speaking of the Child
born unto us, "and righteousness has stooped down from the heaven," we go
on, telling of the Son given unto us. This union is the sacrament of God
become Man, in which "mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and
peace have shared a kiss."
Thus, still following St. Ambrose, when mankind cried out in Psalm 85, "O
Lord, show us Your mercy, and grant us Your salvation," it was a prayer for
the Incarnation, in which "He, who is God?s Son, is born as Mary's Child and
given to us" (op. cit. 3.8.56),
Such, ultimately, is the meaning of the lines with which we begin this same
psalm: "Kindly have You been to Your land, O Lord, bringing back the
captivity of Jacob. You have forgiven Your people their iniquities; You have
covered all their sins. An end have You given to Your anger; You abandoned
the fury of Your wrath." All these blessings of reconciliation between two
realms were accomplished, when the Father sent His only-begotten Son, "that
in the dispensation of the fullness of times, He might gather in one all
things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth - in Him"
In this mystery of God's reconciliation, then, is fulfilled the prophecy of
our psalm: "For His salvation is near to all those who fear Him, so that
glory may inhabit our earth." This glory inhabiting our earth is what was
first seen when "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld
His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace
and truth. . . . No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son,
who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (John1:14,18).
The Father sent His Son in response to the most profound aspirations of
men's hearts, because Isaiah spoke for all mankind when he pleaded: "Oh,
that You would rend the heavens and come down" (64:1). Driven from God's
presence in paradise and retained in bondage to unclean spirits by reason of
transgression, the human race with Adam and Eve cried out in our psalm:
"Convert us, O God of our salvation, and turn Your fury from us. Will You be
angry with us forever? Or from generation to generation prolong Your wrath?
O God, You will convert us and restore us to life, and Your people shall
rejoice in You."
Christ, then, "is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14), and likewise our
"righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). It
is of these things that our psalm says: "Righteousness shall go before Him,
and He will set His foot-steps in the way." This is the Christ who "came and
preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near"
(Ephesians 2:17). This the Christ, "being both begotten of the Father before
all ages, and created from the Virgin in these final times" (Ambrose, op.
Thursday, December 26
Feast of St. Stephen: Generations of preachers have
employed no little ingenuity, and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence, to
expound the theological reasons for celebrating St. Stephen's Day so close
to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects
that "the feast of Stephen" was celebrated long before anyone thought of
celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen, that is to say, got there
first. Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen's is among the
oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of
Holy Week and the Paschal cycle itself, it is possible that the annual
commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the
Christian liturgical calendar.
We know, first of all, that very early the dates of the martyrs' deaths
were commemorated annually in their local churches. The Martyrdom of
Polycarp, from Smyrna in A.D. 156, is our earliest explicit witness to this
custom, but it seems already to have been traditional. Stephen, the first
martyr (due exception being considered for John the Baptist), was venerated
in the earliest church, Jerusalem, from which all other Christian churches
derived their liturgical precedents. Furthermore, primitive chronological
collections affirm that the martyrdom of St. Stephen occurred on December 26
in the very year of our Redemption, and this was arguably the view of
Eusebius of Caesarea. In short, then, when good King Wenceslaus, centuries
later, "looked out on the feast of Stephen," he was observing a
commemoration that Christians have observed, literally, from the very
Especially memorable is Dante's portrayal of St. Stephen's martyrdom:
Then I saw people incited in a fire of wrath
to kill a young man (giovinetto) by stoning, loudly
calling out to one another, 'Kill him, kill him!' (Martira, martira!)
And him I saw, bowed down by the death
that already laid him prone upon the earth,
but he ever made with his eyes a door into heaven,
praying to the high Lord (all'alto Sire), in so great a struggle,/ that He
would pardon his persecutors,
with a gaze deserving of mercy" (Purgatorio 15:106-114).
Friday, December 27
Psalm 97 (Greek and Latin 98): This psalm is one of
those Old Testament texts explicitly interpreted for us in the New
Testament. The opening of Epistle to the Hebrews, which we read two days
ago, told us how "God, who at sundry times and in divers manner spake in
time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken
unto us by His Son." That text then went on to tell of the reverence and
service shown to this Son by the holy angels as He entered into the world
through the Incarnation: "And again, when He bringeth in the firstbegotten
(prototokos) into the world, he saith, 'And let all the angels of God
worship Him'" (1:1f,6). This quotation is, of course, from our psalm, which
the author of Hebrews interprets with reference to that ministry of the
angelic hosts to the incarnate Lord. The relationship of the angels to
Christ is the dominant motif of the first chapter of Hebrews.
The Gospels also treat explicitly with this theme. Matthew, for instance,
tells of the ministry of the announcing angel just prior to the birth of the
firstbegotten (prototokos) (1:20-25, with some manuscript variants on verse
25). Similarly, Luke describes how the Mother of Jesus placed the
firstbegotten (prototokos) in a manger, His entry into the world then being
announced by the angels (2:7-13).
Nor is this theme of angels in relationship to Christ our Lord alien to
the thought of St. Paul. When, in the Epistle to the Colossians, the Apostle
refers to Jesus as the firstbegotten (prototokos), he goes on immediately to
speak of His relationship to the angelic powers: "For by him were all things
created, that are in heaven, and that are in the earth, visible and
invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or
Thanks to the Hebrews, then, we know the theological context in which the
early Christians prayed Psalm 97, which was understood by them as referring
to the Incarnation of the Firstbegotten. The appearance of the King into
this world brings joy to the whole earth: "The Lord is King, let the earth
be glad; let the many islands rejoice." Indeed, this is the very message of
the angels at the birth of the Lord: "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring
you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born
to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke
2:10f). The universality of His kingship includes both men and angels.
The Incarnation means, first of all, that God is forever "present" to
creation, especially humanity, in a new way. There is now a most special
sense in which man stands before Him, since He has joined Himself
inseparably to our nature, divinity and humanity united indissolubly in a
single Person. "God with us" is how the Gospel of Matthew begins, and
"Behold, I am with you all days" is how it ends.
God's appearance in this world, says our psalm, is the source of joy for
those who wait for Him in purity of life: "Light has risen for the just man,
and gladness for those upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, you just ones,
and confess the memory of His holiness." Men and angels join together in
common adoration at God's supreme manifestation in the incarnate Son.
Saturday, December 28
The Holy Innocents: Today's readings set in parallel
two accounts of the deliberate killing of the male Hebrew children, by
Pharaoh in the first instance, and by Herod in the second. In both cases the
murderer is outwitted by God's loyal servants, by the Hebrew midwives in the
first instance, and by the gentile Magi in the second. These parallel
accounts set in relief a larger similarity of the opening of Matthew with
the account of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt, beginning with the dreams of
two Josephs in Genesis 37 and Matthew 1.
With respect to the reading in Exodus 1:8-22, we note that the "shrewdness"
of Pharaoh here ties this story to two others. First, to the account of the
serpent, "more cunning than any beast of the field," in Genesis 3:1. Each
of these two books, Genesis and Exodus, commences with a wily enemy who
endeavors to deceive God's people. Second, this theme is related to the
later stories of Pharaoh's attempts to outwit Moses. This early verse of
Exodus, then, introduces a major motif of our book: the "matching of wits,"
in which the sinful wisdom of the world encounters the baffling wisdom of
God. As this first chapter progresses, Pharaoh's shrewdness is quickly
outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, who are thus to be contrasted with the
gullible Eve at the beginning of Genesis. Ultimately, of course, Pharaoh
will be defeated by his own shrewdness, a process that the Bible calls
hardness of heart.
For the first time in Exodus, the Israelites "pull a fast one" on Pharaoh,
thus demonstrating a superior wisdom that ties this story back to the Joseph
narrative at the end of Genesis. The midwives "feared the Lord," and this
was the source of their wisdom. Whereas the enemy outsmarted Eve at the
beginning of Genesis, the women here in Exodus outwit the enemy.