Sunday, December 28
Matthew 2:13-23: There is something strongly impressive in the Bible’s final remark on the life of St. Joseph: "Then [Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them . . . And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:51Ý52). The Son of God was raised, that is to say, as any little boy should be raised, growing day by day in the practical and moral skills of life, the formation of character, even as He grew in height and build. While God's Son assumed humanity in His mother's womb, it was Joseph who taught Him what it means to be a man. Thus, Joseph was to leave the forming mark (charakter in Greek) of his own manhood on the God-Man. Jesus, in His home town, was known as "the carpenter’s son" (ho tou tektonos huios -- Matthew 13:55).
Few if any writers have shown as much exegetical insight into St. Joseph, surely, as Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached a homily on this biblical character back in the twelfth century. Bernard spoke of Joseph as "the man of virtue," who "deserved to be so honored by God that he was called, and was believed to be, the father of God" (meruit honorari a Deo ut pater Dei et dictus et creditus sit).
Detecting the subtle suggestions dropped in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Bernard compared St. Joseph to his Old Testament counterpart, Joseph the Patriarch. Both men, Bernard noted, were men of chastity, unwilling to touch women who did not belong to them. Each man, likewise, was driven into Egypt by the ill-will (invidia) of others, in the first case by the older sons of Jacob, and by King Herod in the second. Both men were given divine messages in their dreams. The older Joseph "provided grain, not only for himself, but for all the people," while the later Joseph "received for safekeeping the Living Bread from heaven, both for himself and for the whole world."
In the biblical genealogies Jesus' lineage is traced back to David, not through His mother, but through Joseph, to whom Jesus had no biological relationship (Matthew 1:16; Luke 3:23-31). Thus, Jesus inherited the messianic title "Son of David," not through Mary, but through the man who served Him, literally, in loco parentis.
Bernard was impressed by the Davidic lineage of St. Joseph: "Truly of the house of David, this man [vir iste] Joseph truly descended from the royal stem, noble in lineage, more noble in mind. . . . Indeed was he a son of David, not only in flesh, but also in faith, in holiness, in devotion. The Lord found him as it were another David, a man after His own heart, to whom He could safely commit the most secret and most sacred purpose [arcanum] of His heart -- to whom, as to another David, He manifested the deep and concealed things of His wisdom, and whom He would not permit to be ignorant of the Mystery which none of the princes of this world have known. To him it was given to see what many kings and prophets had longed to see, but had not seen, and to hear, but had not heard. And he was given, not only to see and to hear, but also to carry, to lead, to embrace, to kiss, to nurture, and to guard" (Super Missus Est Homiliae 2.16).
Every vocation is unique, surely, in the sense that the Good Shepherd calls each of His sheep by its own proper name. Still, there was something more particularly unique about the vocation of St. Joseph. Just how does a man learn the proper form and method for being the foster-father of God's Son and the spouse of that divine Son's virgin mother? One suspects that there were no manuals on the subject. Joseph was obliged simply to follow God's call wherever it led. Like Abraham, "he went out, not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8). And if Abraham, in thus following God by faith, is called "our father" (Romans 4:12), there must be some sense in which St. Joseph serves as our own foster-father.
With so distinctive and demanding a vocation, we might excuse Joseph if, on occasion, he sometimes felt anxious and insecure. The available evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph appears four times in the Gospel of Matthew, and every single time he is sound asleep. Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they did not include insomnia. Joseph's vocation was not simply difficult; it was impossible. Consequently, he realized that all of it, in the end, depended on God, not himself.
Monday, December 29
Hebrews 4:9-16: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. The cited text was of more than historical interest. The dominant word indicating this persuasion is "today" (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God's word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man's inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.
There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bear our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a "word of judgment" -- logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.
Thus, we do not call the Bible into question. The Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive, and the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God's word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God's all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there.
Tuesday, December 30
Matthew 3:1-12: Unlike the gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew portrays John the Baptist as proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom (3:2). In thus regarding the preaching of John as the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 11:13), Matthew's perspective matches that of the earliest apostolic proclamation (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37).
John the Baptist is dressed (verse 4) like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), the prophet who never died and whose return was anticipated in order to prepare the way for the Messiah (Malachi 4:5; Sirach 48:10). Matthew always identifies John the Baptist as fulfilling that final mission of Elijah (Matthew 17:10-13).
Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were two distinct groups, often hostile to one another, Matthew here lumps them together for the first of five times (verse 7). They are juxtaposed because of their common opposition to Jesus. In this text, John is giving them an initial warning to repent.
In John's warning to these people there was a play on words, which is quite lost, not only in English translation, but also in the original Greek of the New Testament! John spoke Aramaic, after all, and in Aramaic this is what he said in verse 9: "I tell you that God is able to raise up banim to Abraham from these abanim."
(It is worth noting that the same word-play appears in the parable of the winegrowers in Matthew 21. In that text the rejection of the "Son" [ben] 21:37-38 becomes the rejection of the "stone" [eben] in 12:42. Once again, this phenomenon is not discernible unless one reconstructs the Semitic expressions that underlie the canonical Greek text.)
The last public words of John (verse 12) are concerned with the eternal fire of damnation. So too are the last public words of Jesus in Matthew 25:46.
Wednesday, December 31
Psalm 90 (Greek and Latin 89): This psalm is chosen for evening prayer on this day, because this evening prayer is the final prayer for the year. Most of us, probably, are wondering just where the year 2003 has gone; it came and went so fast! The psalm we pray this evening, therefore, is about the swift passage of time and the shaky prospects of those who live in time.
Those of us who can remember the hymns of our youth will likely recognize in this psalm the words of Isaac Watts's great hymn, "O God our Help in Ages Past," because that hymn is simply a paraphrase of this psalm about the passage of time: "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 -- that is to say, our labor to support our lives in this world -- 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.
Thursday, January 1
Hebrews 6:1-10: When converts came to the early Christian Church, there was need for considerable instruction in the fundamentals, those things described in this passage as "the word of the beginning," ho tes arches logos (verse 1). This was the Gospel as kerygma, or announcement, and it dealt with such elementary matters as "the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment" (verses1-2).
It is important to observe that the author of Hebrews does not include among those fundamentals such matters as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Holy Communion, and a host of other essential Christian matters. Indeed, he does not include therein even the subject matter of his present work itself, the doctrine of Christ's sacrificial atonement! It is not the case, of course, that the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Holy Communion, the blood atonement, and so forth are not fundamental to Christian existence. Indeed, they are the rock foundation of Christian existence.
What the author has in mind here, however, is the process in which a convert is instructed into the Christian Church. Such a one is not taught those things that can be correctly learned only within the full experience of the Church. He is taught, rather, those matters by which he becomes a Christian. First among these are "the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God." Until there is sincere repentance and faith, nothing else can be properly taught.
When the person is ready to embrace that conversion and that faith, the next step is Baptism. We see this transition in Acts 2:37-38 and elsewhere. With respect to Baptism, there was also the need to make sure that the convert understood how Christian Baptism differed from the forms of baptism intended for converts to Judaism, and also how it differed from the baptism of John. This is what our author calls "the doctrine of baptisms" (verse 2), more literally "instruction of baptisms" (baptismon didache), and we find such instruction abut the various understandings of baptism being conveyed in Acts 18:25-26; 19:1-5. The "laying on of hands" in verse 2 refers to the post-baptismal rite for the special reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; 19:6).
Instruction in these basic matters, along with the teaching "of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment," laid the groundwork for the call to repentance (cf. Acts 17:30-31). Such matters as these form "the first principles of the oracles of God" (Hebrews 5:12).
When a person has been adequately instructed in these elementary matters, he then passes through the rites of Christian initiation: Baptism ("once enlightened"), the laying on of hands ("become partakers of the Holy Spirit"), and the Holy Communion ("tasted the heavenly gift").
After a person has gone through all this, says the author of Hebrews, he is ready for even more solid teaching; he is now properly prepared to "go on to perfection" (verse 1), the more solid food of Christian doctrine (5:12-14). Among the latter, he says, are the essential truths about the Christian redemption, the atoning blood of Christ, and the liturgy of glory in heaven. These latter matters are the chief subjects of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Friday, January 2
Psalm 34 (Greek and Latin 33): On this second day of the new year, Psalm 34 asks what sort of year we want it to be "Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?" At first the question may appear merely rhetorical. After all, doesn't everyone desire life? Would anyone intentionally choose or prefer death over life?
Actually, the choice of death over life is made all the time. This is why the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19) puts it as a matter of choice. There are any number of souls in this world who will insist on wasting away thirty-eight years lying at the pool of Bethesda, constantly making excuses for themselves, usually by blaming someone else for their indolence (John 5:5-7). Jesus avows that such a disposition was sinful. "See, you have been made well. Sin no more," Jesus tells the man (5:14).
Truly, that person shows little familiarity with history, or even his own soul, who would deny this deep, inveterate, and very sinful death-wish at work in the human heart. Our psalm's question, then, is well directed; in very truth, just who is the man who desires life?
Our choices really do count in the sight of God. Even though He causes his rain to fall on both the just and the unjust, it would a serious mistake to suppose that God has no regard for the difference between a just and an unjust man. God actively resists the proud man and gives his grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). God really does discriminate, and our psalmist elaborates the consequences of this discrimination: "The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth."
These verses of Psalm 34 are later paraphrased in 1 Peter 3:10-12 -- "He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." For the Apostle Peter, these lines of our psalm provide an outline for how the Christian is to live. He comments on them: "Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing" (3:8f).
Saturday, January 3
Matthew 11:1-19: This first verse of this reading brings Jesus' second large discourse (in Matthew) to a close (Compare 7:28). Presumably the apostles now go out to do the ministry for which Jesus was preparing them in Chapter 10 (cf. 10:1).
While they are gone, Matthew introduces a "John the Baptist interlude," a literary construction (paralleled in the structure of Mark 6:7-30) to indicate the passage of time while the apostles are gone. This first element in the story concerns the apparent despondency of John in prison and the questions that he sends to Jesus. John has been in prison since 4:12. He has not seen the deeds of Jesus that Matthew has recorded in the intervening chapters.
There are two things particularly to observe in this first story. First, Matthew clearly relies on his readers' familiarity with the entire career of John the Baptist. Although he refers here to John's imprisonment, the circumstances of that imprisonment are not narrated until Chapter 14. Matthew could be confident, however, that his readers already knew the story of John from their initial catechesis, because the ministry of John the Baptist was included in the earliest apostolic witness (Acts 1:21-22; 10:36-38; 13:23-25).
Second, the signs of the Messiah, listed here by Jesus in 11:5f-6, are not at all similar to those earlier enunciated by John the Baptist himself in 3:10-12. There was a sense in which the Person foretold by John did not really resemble the Person who actually came. This dissimilarity was perhaps the cause of John's misgivings, as he languished in his prison cell. To strengthen his faith, Jesus reminds him of what the earlier prophets had foretold, especially Isaiah (verses 4-6).
This story is followed by an account of Jesus' own assessment of John (verses 7-15, in which He identifies John the Baptist as fulfilling the prophecy about the return of Elijah (verse 14).
The final part of this reading is about the fickle resistance that John experienced to his own preaching (11:16-18); it is a sign of the people’s lack of interest in true conversion. This becomes the theme of the final verses of this chapter. In Chapters 8-9 of Matthew, Jesus met the resistance of elite enemies, the spiritual leaders of the nation. Here in Chapters 11-12, however, we see resistance to the Gospel on the part of large numbers. Just as the opposition to John the Baptist was total and unreasoning, so is the stand against Jesus (verse 19).