Sunday, April 18
John 20:19-31: St. Thomas was a philosopher. Lest, however, this statement sound too obvious, let me promptly say that I donŐt mean Thomas Aquinas but Thomas the Apostle.
The philosophy embraced by Thomas the Apostle was not of an academic brand. It was, rather, the peasant variety, a common type, the truly useful school of thought that aids an ordinary man to brace up in adversity, face disaster bravely, and cope with valor on the bitter day. A philosopher of this sort is less interested in exploring the essence of things, and more concerned about how to get through life without falling to pieces. Thus, he emphasizes sobriety of soul and is deeply suspicious of anything even faintly resembling fun. His aspirations are modest, the better to soften the inevitable disappointments that life will bring. Ever resigned to the next unforeseen but inexorable tragedy, fairly certain that all will come to a bad end, this philosopher tightens the reins on enthusiasm and dissuades his heart from inordinate hope. The last thing he would trust is a bit of good news.
If such a school of thought can be summarized in two sentences, those sentences might be an hypothesis and an imperative: "If anything can go wrong, it probably will. Get used to it." One could never be too cautious, after all, or he risked getting too rosy a picture of things. Therefore, be careful. Near every silver lining lurks a cloud. Some, I suppose, would call this philosophy pessimism, but those who espouse it usually think of themselves as realists.
Such a philosopher was Thomas the Apostle, significantly known to history as "Doubting Thomas." One suspects, however, that the doubting of Thomas had less to do with his epistemological system than with his nervous system. Ever brave to drain the draught of sadness and misfortune, he dared to imbibe joy, if ever, only in small sips.
Thomas, therefore, was very cautious about all those miracles and healings that he witnessed. Things were going far too well. There had to be a downside to the whole business. All these blind people were receiving their sight, to be sure, but who could say what they would see before the thing was all over?
It came as no great surprise to Thomas, then, when he learned that disaster lay just down the road. Indeed, Thomas was the first among the apostles to embrace the imperative of the Cross. Unlike Peter ("Get behind Me, Satan!"), he put up no resistance to the news. When Jesus declared His intention of going to Jerusalem to "wake up" Lazarus, the other apostles expressed their fear at the prospect. "Rabbi," they answered, "lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?" It was Thomas who found within himself the generous strength to say, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him" (John 11:8, 16). In this scene, Thomas is no skeptic. He is, rather, very much the realist, the man who discerns the stark realities awaiting His Lord at Jerusalem, and he is resolute with respect to his own course in the matter. When it comes to the prospects for tragedy, Thomas is not deceived by any inappropriate optimism. Nor, let it be said, by cowardice. If there is one thing he knows how to take with a stiff upper lip, it is bad news. It is, so to speak, his specialty.
Thomas may also have been something of a loner, which would explain why, when the risen Lord paid His first visit to the assembled Apostles, Thomas "was not with them when Jesus came" (20:24). He apparently had gone off to get a better grip on himself. It had been a very tough week. Just as Thomas had foreseen, JesusŐ life had ended in tragedy. This, the apostle was sure, was the biggest tragedy he had ever seen. Yet he was coping with it somehow. Years of an inner docility to inevitable fate had schooled him in the discipline of endurance. Yes, he would get through this too. He was a man who could deal with misfortune and sorrow.
Thomas returned to the other Apostles in the "upper room" that evening, having wrestled his soul into a quiet acquiescence. It was the first day of a new week. He had faced down the disaster, and his control over life was starting to return. What he had not anticipated, however, was that the other Apostles, in his absence, would completely lose their minds. "Well, Thomas," one of them announced, "fine time to be gone. We have seen the Lord, and you just missed Him!"
Thomas knew how to deal with sorrow. His real problem had always been how to deal with happiness. And that problem was about to get a lot worse. A whole week the risen Lord would make him wait, sharing that room with the ten other men to whom he had hurled his challenge: "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (20:25). As each day passed, the case for skepticism was strengthened.
But then it happened. The room was suddenly filled with a great light. New evidence had arrived and stood now undeniable on the scene. Doubting Thomas sensed that his long-established thinking was about to be rather deeply shaken. However embarrassed, he rose and turned toward the entering light, bracing himself to learn a bit of good news.
Monday, April 19
Ezekiel 6: The prophet faces westward, the direction of Israel, to pronounce this oracle of doom. The threefold destruction predicted here (sword, famine, and pestilence) stands parallel to the three portions of EzekielŐs shaved hair and beard in the previous chapter, as does the prophecy of a remnant that will be delivered.
Whereas Jerusalem was being addressed in Chapter 5, the present chapter pertains rather to the rural areas of Israel, the hills and valleys. The immediate listeners to this oracle, however, are those Israelites who have already been brought to captivity in Babylon. It is they who must take warning, for they will soon see GodŐs judgment on idolatry.
Tuesday, April 20
Ezekiel 7: If the Bible likens good to a seed that grows, develops, and matures, the same is true of evil. Like the enemy that Jesus described as sowing tares among the wheat, Ezekiel says that is Israel is about to behold the blossoming and fruit of many years of evil sowing. The scene of the coming judgment portrayed in this chapter is marked by the same cataclysmic finality that characterizes JesusŐ own predictions of the fall of Jerusalem.
The "land" of Israel cursed in this chapter is to be understood in a geographical, not just a political, sense. That is, the very earth is cursed in manŐs sin, like the cursing of the ground in Genesis 3. Drawn from the earth himself, man pollutes that source by his accumulated sins. GodŐs patience is immense. But because it is related to times and seasons, it is not infinite. The end has come, says Ezekiel. When God is "fed up," there is nothing in this earth that can prevail against His judgment.
Wednesday, April 21
Ezekiel 8: This startling, detailed, and dramatic vision of Ezekiel occurred on September 17, 592 B.C. He is carried "in the Spirit" to Jerusalem to witness the abominations for which the city was to be punished with the wrath and the inevitability that we observed in the previous chapter.
The material of this vision will occupy Ezekiel through Chapter 11, at the end of which he will be returned to Babylon. Prior to JerusalemŐs downfall in 586 many of the prophets fellow exiles in Babylon maintained the hope of returning home soon. The purpose of this and other visions of Ezekiel was to destroy such a hope by showing it to be groundless. In this vision there are four scenes, each illustrating a discrete abomination in the temple.
The first scene is at the north gate of the wall that separated the outer court of the temple from the outside world (8:3-6). (Ignore and omit the word "inner" from verse 3, in accord with the more accurate Greek text of the Septuagint. The received Hebrew text of this chapter is notoriously corrupt.) Ezekiel finds a pagan shrine in this place, an affront to the LordŐs presence in the temple.
In the second scene (8:7-13) he goes through the wall of a chamber adjacent to the gate, where he finds IsraelŐs elders worshipping images of animals.
In the third scene (8:14f) he crosses the outer court toward the templeŐs inner court. Not yet entering the latter, Ezekiel beholds Israelite women crying for the death of Tammuz, a Mesopotamian god of vegetation. Even this alien cult is found in GodŐs temple.
Finally, in the fourth scene (8:16-18), Ezekiel enters the inner court, where he discovers sun-worshippers. IsraelŐs idolatry is complete. These men have turned their backs to God and are adoring a creature.
Thursday, April 22
Ezekiel 9: The marking of the foreheads of the Remnant is a sort of renewal of the marking of the houses of the Chosen People in Egypt on Passover night. These will be spared on the day of wrath, for the simple reason that they "sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem." Sometimes the just man is left so powerless in this world that all he can do, in the face of overwhelming evil, is "sigh and groan."
Not only does the temple offer no sanctuary from the punishment; those in the temple are the first to fall, because they have defiled GodŐs house. The divine judgment begins, not with the world, but with the household of God. The seven heavenly figures Ń the scribe and the six executioners Ń are angelic figures representing GodŐs just will in what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Revelation 7 is a very good text to read with this chapter, which is surely in part its literary inspiration.
Friday, April 23
Ezekiel 10: The wooden statues of the Cherubim, with their wings spread over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, were but symbols of the angels of the Presence, the heavenly Cherubim who serve to support the Throne of God. Now Ezekiel sees these spirits themselves, and they are identical with the Four Living Creatures that he had beheld in his inaugural vision in Chapter 1, where they bore, as here, the Cloud of the divine Presence. They will appear again, of course, in Revelation 4. The burning coals from within their whirling wheels, full of the divine holiness, are destructive of those whose brows have not been marked by the angelic scribe, who also appears again in this chapter. Besides destroying the wicked, this divine fire purifies GodŐs loyal servants (cf. Isaiah 6:6f). As the chapter closes, the action moves to the east gate of the temple, facing the Mount of Olives. It is at this gate that Ezekiel will receive the two oracles in Chapter 11.
Saturday, April 24
John 3:1-21: The Pharisee Nicodemus, "a ruler of the Jews" and "a teacher of Israel," appears only three times in the New Testament. Each time Nicodemus appears in St. JohnŐs Gospel, it is always in the context of the Lord's redemptive death.
First, it was to Nicodemus that Jesus made His earliest explicit reference to His coming crucifixion: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (3:14ř16).
John next speaks of Nicodemus as the sole member of the Sanhedrin to raise his voice against the plot to take Jesus' life (7:45ř52).
We do not hear of Nicodemus again until immediately after the death of Jesus, who was, at last, "lifted up" on Golgotha. In this third instance, Nicodemus appears as the companion of Joseph of Arimathea, assisting him in the LordŐs burial: "And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury" (19:39ř40).
The expression "be lifted up," used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through JohnŐs Gospel, again with reference to the crucifixion: "ÔAnd I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.Ő This He said, signifying by what death He would die" (12:32ř33). In addition to being a reference to the crucifixion, the expression "lifted up" also alludes to a prophecy of GodŐs Suffering Servant: "Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly" (Isaiah 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the LordŐs lifting up refers not only to His crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.
In this respect it is useful to compare the LordŐs words to Nicodemus, as recorded in John, to the predictions He makes about His coming sufferings, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. It is noteworthy that what Jesus proclaims to His closest disciples in the Synoptics, He proclaims to the Pharisee Nicodemus in John. We may take Mark 8:31 as an example. In the Markan text, as in John, the defining verb is "must" (dei), which refers to GodŐs determined plan of redemption. In each text also, Jesus calls Himself "the Son of Man." Thus, in Mark 8:31, "the Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again," while in John 3:14, "so must the Son of Man be lifted up." If these verses are to be regarded as theological equivalents (which seems reasonable), MarkŐs inclusion of the Resurrection among the things that must happen suggests that JohnŐs "lifted up" includes the LordŐs glorification as well as His crucifixion.
In JohnŐs theological vision, the LordŐs glorification is manifest even in His mounting of the Cross. His very death is an assertion of His authority: "I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (10:17ř18).
It is in discoursing with Nicodemus, then, that Jesus first calls Himself "the Son of Man" and refers to the necessity of His sacrificial death. We do not know the immediate response of Nicodemus, but the LordŐs words finally smite this PhariseeŐs heart when he sees them being fulfilled on Golgotha.
JohnŐs account of the LordŐs sufferings stresses that Jesus died as a king (18:36ř37; 19:2, 15, 19, 21), and Nicodemus certainly witnessed the death of a king. Whereas all the Gospels credit Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus, John tells us that it was Nicodemus who determined that Jesus would be buried as a king. First, Jesus would be laid to rest in a garden (19:41), like His royal ancestors, the ancient kings of Judah (2 Kings 21:18, 26). Then, to the ministry of properly burying this King of the Jews, the now-converted Nicodemus would bring a kingly measure of myrrh and precious spices, about a hundred pounds. This burial garden was, after all, the KingŐs garden of which Holy Church says, "My beloved has gone to his garden, / To the beds of spices" (Song of Solomon 6:2). It is on this "mountain of myrrh" that He will lie in rest "until the day breaks and the shadows flee away" (4:6).