Sunday, September 14
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross: This feast day goes back to the early 4th century, when the Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, discovered the very Cross on which our Redemption was accomplished. This day has been observed as a major feast of the Christian year in both the East and the West since that time, and countless beautiful hymns and prayers have been composed for its proper celebration.
The Cross of Christ is the focal point for all of Holy Scripture, because all of the Bible either prepares for or further interprets the meaning of the Cross. Thus, Jesus prays to the Father in Psalms 17 (16):4, "Because of the words of Your lips, I have adhered to the hard ways." And just what were these words of God for which Jesus adhered to the hard ways? Surely they were the words "of all that the prophets have spoken," for "ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and so enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:25f).
These, then, were the words that governed the life of Jesus: words about Isaac’s burden of wood in Genesis, words about the paschal lamb in Exodus, words about atonement for sin in Leviticus, words about Samson giving his life for the people in Judges, words about David suffering opprobrium in Second Samuel, words about being pierced in Zechariah, words about the Lord’s Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and, indeed, these very words of the suffering just man in the Book of Psalms.
When Jesus took up Isaac’s wood on His shoulders, and became the paschal lamb, and made atonement for sins, and gave His life for His brethren, and suffered opprobrium, and was pierced with a spear, and all the rest — in doing all these things, "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3). All of the Hebrew Bible consists of prophetic words about Jesus, for the sake of which He adhered to the "hard ways."
And just what were those hard ways to which our Lord adhered for the sake of God’s words? They were the hard ways of obedience to the Father’s will, for "He learned obedience by the things that He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). St. Paul, about two decades after Good Friday, quoted a line from a very primitive hymn of the Church, according to which Christ "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).
Monday, September 15
Acts 28:1-15: Arriving on Malta, perhaps in mid-November, Paul and his companions must winter there until sailing again becomes possible in the spring, three months later (28:11). The apostle’s run-in with the snake, though regarded by the Maltese as miraculous, need not be interpreted that way. The Greek word here translated as "viper" (echidna) normally refers to non-poisonous snakes and is different from the word used in Mark 16:18. Paul’s healing of Publius’s father, however, certainly is miraculous and leads to further healings on the island. When the time comes to depart, they once again sail an Alexandrian grain ship, which has wintered at Malta. Luke includes the detail that its prow is adorned with carved statues of Castor and Pollux, astral gods revered by the sailors who call upon them in times of storm. They sail to Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily, where they remain three days while the crew unloads old cargo and takes on new. They then cross over to a port on the Calabrian coast, Rhegium (modern Reggio), on the very toe of the Italian boot. Taking advantage of a southerly wind, they then sail up to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, where they find a congregation of Christians. Some of these Christians immediately rush north to Rome, 125 miles away, to inform the Christians in the capital that Paul is on the way. The apostle and his company, meanwhile, spend a whole week at Puteoli, before continuing their journey overland. Eighty miles later they come to Appian Forum, and, ten miles further, to Three Taverns; in both places they are met by Christians who had been forewarned of Paul’s coming by the Christians from Puteoli. They are all glad to see him, of course. They may be thinking of the letter that he wrote them three years earlier from Corinth.
Tuesday, September 16
Acts 28:16-31: Because he told them he was coming to see them (Romans 15:24), the Christians at Rome had had high hopes for his arrival. That was three years earlier, however, and those hopes had been lowered considerably by the rumor that Paul was languishing in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:22). Because the events at Caesarea the previous autumn, culminating in Paul’s to a higher court at Rome, had transpired so late in the year, precariously close to the winter when sea travel and communication were no longer undertaken, apparently no one in Rome had learned of those distant events. We do know that the Jews in Rome knew nothing about them (28:21), so they gain their first information on the matter three days after Paul’s arrival in the city. He invites the local Jewish leaders to meet at his lodging, where he is under house arrest (28:16-17). It is significant to Luke’s literary and theological purpose to record Paul’s last rejection by the Jews — the last of so many that he has recounted — in that very city which is the capital of the Gentile world, the city towards which the dynamism of this narrative has been directed. Paul is at last in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city so closely tie his and Peter’s destinies. It is precisely here that Paul declares to the unbelieving Jews that "this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles" (28:18).
Wednesday, September 17
Judges 8: Judges 8:4-9 records the incident in which Gideon, leading his three hundred exhausted and hungry warriors in pursuit of fifteen thousand escaping Midianites, requested loaves of bread from the cities of Succoth and Penuel. This request was entirely reasonable. Gideon’s small force, by routing the Midianite army by the hill of Moreh (7:19-22), had effectively delivered all Israel, including Succoth and Penuel, from seven years of oppression (6:1). Now there remained only a modest mopping-up operation to subdue the last vestiges of the fleeing Midianite force, led by Zeba and Zalmunna. Providing Gideon’s little army with a bit of bread was the very least to be expected from those cities which benefited from that army’s victory.
Yet, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel refused Gideon’s petition. The Sacred Text tells us why: "Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?" (8:6) That is to say, the men of those two cities, Succoth and Penuel, were afraid to take the chance. If they were to give bread to Gideon’s forces and then Gideon should lose the battle to Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianites would retaliate against the cities that had provided the requested assistance. (One recalls the vengeance of Saul against the priests of Nob, who honored an identical request from David; see 1 Samuel 21:1-7; 22:6-19.) In short, until the battle was actually over, the men Succoth and Penuel decided to play it safe. No bread, then, for Gideon’s men.
This story illustrates the difference between those who play it safe and those who play for keeps. By boldly marching his three hundred men into the massive Midianite camp ("as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude"), Gideon had played for keeps. This story emphasizes the fortitude of his army by its contrast to the cowardice of Succoth and Penuel. Gideon won that battle, because the Lord took his side. In some of the battles that men fight on this earth, you see, God does take sides. Never, however, does He take the side of the coward.
This story also illustrates why the virtue of fortitude is necessary for all the other virtues, as a condition and catalyst. The history of moral philosophy insists that no other virtue is possible without the virtue of fortitude, certainly not justice nor charity. The man deficient in fortitude will not measure up in anything else. In the words of Ambrose of Milan, "In the mediocre soul there is no fortitude, which alone defends the adornment of all the virtues" (De Officiis 1.39). ). For this reason, the man least deserving of our trust, on any matter whatever, is the coward. Fortitude, wrote Thomas Aquinas, is "the general virtue, or rather, the condition of any virtue" (generalis virtus, vel potius, conditio cuiuslibet virtutis — Summa Theologica Ia IIae, Q. 123, Art. 2). Thus, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel, falling short in fortitude, failed in an elementary duty of justice and charity.
Thursday, September 18
Psalm 70: It is safe to say that the psalm's opening line—"O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me"—has been prayed, over the centuries, more than any other line of the psalter. There is a reason for this. In the 6th century, the great monastic code of the West, the Rule of St. Benedict, prescribed that each of the seven "day hours" (as distinct from Vigils, the midnight service) should begin with this verse, thus guaranteeing that it would be prayed at least seven times each day.
This usage became common in the West, even for non-monastics. One finds it in the traditional Roman Breviary, for example, and Archbishop Cranmer placed that verse at the beginning of the Anglican daily Evensong.
The roots of this usage, however, go back earlier to the Christian East, especially Egypt. A century before the Rule of St. Benedict, the popularity of this prayer among Egyptian monks was observed by St. John Cassian, a Romanian monk who traveled extensively around the Mediterranean and finally settled in southern Gaul. The 10th Book of Cassian's great work, The Conferences, which is the second conference of Abba Isaac on prayer, most marvelously describes the efficacy of this psalm verse in all the circumstances of life. Whether in temptation or calm, says Abba Isaac, whether in fear or reassurance, whether in pain or pleasure, joy or sorrow, there are no circumstances in life when it is not supremely proper to pray: "O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me." This prayer, he goes on, should never be absent from our lips.
As a simple doubling and slight expansion of the "Lord, have mercy," this opening line of Psalm 70, became, then, one of the most important early formulas in the quest for constant prayer. It served as a kind of historical forerunner to the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner").
After stating that this formula —"O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me" —had been handed down through the Egyptian monastic tradition from its most ancient fathers, with a view to attaining purity of heart and constant prayer, Abba Isaac continues: "Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand, for whoever calls unceasingly on his protector is sure that he is always present. It contains a burning love and charity, an awareness of traps, and a fear of enemies."
Then several pages of Abba Isaac (as narrated by Cassian, in what may be counted among the most eloquent and carefully crafted paragraphs in all of Latin patristic literature), are devoted to the sundry and manifold circumstances in which it is proper to pray "O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me." Prayed from the heart, it places the mind constantly in communion with God.
The quest of the ancient Egyptian tradition, Isaac insists, was to make this formula a permanent invocation: "This verse should be poured out in unceasing prayer so that we may be delivered in adversity and preserved and not puffed up in prosperity. You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart. You should not stop repeating it when you are doing any kind of work or performing some service, or are on a journey. Meditate on it while sleeping and eating and attending to the least needs of nature. . . . Let it be the first thing that comes to you when you awake, let it anticipate every other thought as you get up, let it send you to your knees as you arise from your bed, let it bring you from there to every work and activity, and let it accompany you at all times."
Friday, September 19
While many of the psalms are congregational hymns manifestly composed for public worship, Psalm 73 (Greek and Latin 72) is one of those showing signs of a more private origin, taking its rise in the intimate reflections of the pondering heart. Psalm 72 is concerned with much the same moral problem as Job and Habbakuk — "If God is just and on the side of justice, and if also God is almighty, why do wickedness and injustice seem to prevail?"
Already in this, its most elementary moral presupposition — its basic sentiment of hope, expecting goodness and justice to prevail over evil and injustice — Psalm 73 stands radically at odds with much of our present popular philosophy. Indeed, one of the more characteristic features of the modern world is its growing inability to presume that the moral order, including the social order, is rooted in the metaphysical order, described by Colin Gunton as "the order of being as a whole." Relatively few people in today’s culture seem any longer able to presuppose that they live in a moral universe where the differences between right and wrong, justice and injustice, are fixed in the composition of reality.
Like the ancient Sophists, those ethical relativists who perceived no essential relationship between objective reality and ethical norm, and thus no necessary association between nature and culture, many thinkers today, not viewing the universe in fixed moral terms, would find no reason for surprise at the apparent prevalence of evil.
For modern man, after all, as for those ancient foes of Socrates, justice is only what a given culture determines justice to be. Justice is configured only as a society decides to configure it. Thus, there is no way for injustice to prevail, for if a society approves or prefers a certain kind of behavior, then the latter conduct automatically becomes just.
Strictly speaking, then, since for modern man correct behavior consists solely in the acquiescence to purely cultural norms, there can really be no such thing as an unjust society. That is to say, whatever prevails in a society is necessarily just, because society is the sole and ultimate arbiter of justice. In contemporary sociology and other behavioral disciplines this presumption rises to the level of an axiomatic first principle, quite beyond academic controversy.
Moreover, in a world whose only presumed rule is the survival of the fittest, why would anyone anticipate that justice and goodness would prevail? In short, a major conversion of mind would be required of modern man even to appreciate the moral problem posed in this psalm, much less to deal with that problem philosophically or, yet less, to make it the inquiry of prayer.
For Psalm 73, however, since it presupposes the identification of the world’s Creator with the Author of the moral law, the prevalence of evil in the world is the stuff of a crisis. Even as the psalm begins, the crisis has already been worked through, so to speak, and the prayer simply reviews the reflective process that brought about its resolution. Even as we begin the psalm, then, we are ready to praise God.
First, the moral problem. There is the scandal at beholding the prosperity of the wicked, in contrast to the suffering of the just. Second, there is the temptation to envy or even emulate the wicked. After all, evil seems to provide a bigger pay-off than good. This was the candid argument explicitly made by the Sophist Thrasymachus, who contended that, because injustice does a better job of "delivering the goods," only a dunce or weakling would prefer justice! Third, there is the believer’s awareness that he is actually being tempted; he senses that, in permitting himself even to think such thoughts, he places his soul in moral peril. Thus, the believer takes stock of his thoughts before it is too late. Fourth, he takes stock of his thoughts by entering into the deeper presence of God: "So I tried to understand this, but it was too difficult for me, until I entered the sanctuary of God." (One may want to interpret this "sanctuary of God" as the loving intellect; Cicero thus speaks of the "temple of the mind.") Fifth, the believer reflects on the judgments of God, who knows how to deal with the unjust, and will, at the last, do so. Finally, the believer commits his own destiny to God, who will never abandon him, ever be with him, and, at the end, receive him into glory.
Saturday, September 20
2 Kings 5:1-19: Naaman’s is the most interesting story of a Gentile who came to the faith and worship of Israel’s God. A general in the service of King Ben-hadad II of Syria during the ninth century before Christ, he was persuaded by a little Israelite girl, a captive of the Syrians, to make a pilgrimage to Israel in hopes of being cleansed of his leprosy. Fortunately for Naaman, the prophet Elisha was in residence at the time, for whom the curing of leprosy was a small part of a day’s work.
We know on the authority of Jesus Himself that Naaman’s story signified God’s plans for the salvation of the Gentiles (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5:15-17). That is to say, what happened to Naaman prefigured the Christian mission to the nations. An especially ironical feature his story is that this Gentile confessed the true God during a time when many in Israel were engaged in the worship of false gods. He obeyed the Lord’s prophet when not a few of that prophet’s co-religionists were refusing to do so.
And just what did Elisha oblige Naaman to do? "Go," he told him, "wash in the Jordan seven times" (5:10. This order seems simple enough, but Naaman evidently expected something a bit more sudden and dramatic: "I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy’" (5:11).
Naaman, you see, though a religious man, did not yet know about sacraments, and the action required of him by Elisha—dipping into the Jordan seven times—had a distinctly sacramental quality. It was not "only a symbol," but a symbolic action specifically designated by God for the granting of grace. It actually accomplished something.
By bathing in the Jordan, Naaman would be doing a thing of great moment. He would be identifying with the Israelites who went through that river as their passage into the Promised Land. A whole generation of them had been baptized, as it were, in the Jordan, as the previous generation had been baptized in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). Just as those ancient events had foreshadowed the Christian sacrament of Baptism (10:11), Naaman’s mystic sevenfold immersion in that same mystic river was to serve as a prophecy of the future baptizing of the nations.
What was required of Naaman was the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26). Unless he did what he was told, he would remain a leper. John Chrysostom thus compared Naaman to the blind man whom Jesus commanded to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam; both were required to make the same act of obedience in faith (Homilies on John 56). Naaman received from Elisha essentially the same command that the newly converted Paul would someday receive from Ananias, "Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).
Naaman did not understand any of this. What, after all, was so special about the Jordan River? "Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?" Naaman was not yet converted. He still resisted doing something he did not understand. "So he turned and went away in a rage" (2 Kings 5:12).
Naaman’s loyal friends, however, eventually persuaded him to obey the prophet, "so he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean" (5:14). By way of prophetic prefiguration, Naaman submitted to the stern exhortation of the apostle Peter, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). He went, he washed, he was cleansed.
It is in such terms that the Church of Jesus Christ has ever read the story of Naaman. That little girl who sent Naaman to be baptized, said Ambrose of Milan, "bore the mien of the Church and represented her image" — speciem habebat Ecclesiae et figuram representabat (De Sacramentis 2.8). "It was not for nothing," wrote Irenaeus of Lyons, "but for our instruction, that Naaman of old, suffering from leprosy, was cleansed by being baptized (on baptistheis ekathaireto). For as we are lepers by sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions through (dia) the sacred water and the invoking of the Lord, being spiritually regenerated as newborn children, even as the Lord declared, ‘Unless a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the Kingdom of God’" (Fragment 34).