Sunday, August 15
Marian Feast: The earliest apostolic preaching evidently contained nothing explicit with respect to the conception and birth of Jesus. There is evidence that the scope of the first apostolic preaching covered only the fairly short time “beginning from the baptism of John to that day when [Jesus] was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22). This is the scope covered in the various accounts of apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts, nothing being said about the conception, birth, or earlier life of the Lord (cf. 2:22f; 3:13Ý15; 4:8Ý10; 10:36Ý39; 13:23Ý28).
Information about the conception and birth of Jesus, then, seems not to have been part of the common tradition of the primitive Church that had been handed down by the apostles. In fact, the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, Mark, covers exactly that scope outlined in Acts 1:22, “beginning from the baptism of John to that day when [Jesus] was taken up from us.”
Whence, then, would the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have derived the information contained in the first two chapters of each of them? There could have been only one source—the mother of Jesus. By the time these two Gospels were written, she was the only person who could address these matters firsthand, and surely she was the eyewitness behind these two narratives. Thus, when Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:35) ascribe the virginal conception of Jesus to the special activity of the Holy Spirit, this was something they could have known only with the Virgin Mary as their “informed source.”
It is in Luke’s Gospel, however, that more amply develops Mary’s own important role in the Incarnation. (Matthew, in contrast, tells the same story mainly from the perspective of Joseph. Joseph was certainly dead by the time that Matthew wrote, since in John 19:26f Mary is portrayed as a widow). It is Luke who describes Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the important conversation between them. It is Luke who speaks of Mary’s consent to God’s plan. And just as Luke’s gospel begins with the Holy Spirit’s descent to the Virgin Mary, so Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, commences with the Holy Spirit’s descent to the Church. At this latter event, too, the mother of Jesus stands at the very center (cf. Acts 1:14), the very first among the disciples of her Son.
It is largely from the Gospel according to Luke, then, that we learn of the important and even decisive role of Mary in God’s taking flesh among, because the flesh that He assumed was given from her own body, which became God’s very temple in this world. All of this theology is conveyed when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth addressed her as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). When Elizabeth called her “blessed,” Luke tells us, it was because “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41f). Likewise filled as well, surely, are all those subsequent generations that have called her “blessed” (Luke 1:48).
Monday August 16
Acts 27:1-44: This trip to Rome, which will fill the two final chapters of the book, is the point to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. This is the journey that matches the Aeneid of Vergil, for Rome is the goal of both books. Paul’s going to Rome is a matter of his destiny (cf. 19:21). Accordingly, Luke’s inclusion of so many nautical details obliges the reader to slow down and savor the significance of the event.
In this final voyage Paul will be accompanied by Aristarchus and Luke (verses 2-3), who had helped him bring the alms to Jerusalem over two years earlier (20:4,6), and who have been with him at Caesarea since that time (Colossians 4:10,14; Philemon 24). They board a ship whose homeport is Adramyttium, just south of Troas, or Troy, from where Aeneas had set sail for Rome. Luke’s inclusion of this detail is thus significant.
Leaving Phoenicia, they cruise along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (verse 4), and then go north to Asia Minor. The ship is obviously returning to its homeport.
At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, they change to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy; it was perhaps a grain cargo ship, so many of which brought wheat to Rome at a fraction of the cost of transporting grain overland to Rome from elsewhere in Italy.
Still fighting contrary winds, they make their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71). The “Fair Havens” they reach on the south coast of Crete is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes.
In verse 9 Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe (November 11 to February 8 [Pliny] or March 10 [Josephus]). Phoenix, where they hope to winter, lies some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (verse 12).
When a light wind begins to blow westward, the ship’s crew decides it is just what is needed to take the ship those forty miles west to Phoenix. They weigh anchor and proceed to do so, hugging the south coast of Crete.
Not long after commencing this maneuver, however, the ship is hit by a “typhoon wind” (anemos typhonikos), a nor’easter blowing down from over Crete and sending the ship out to sea in a southwesterly direction. There is nothing to do but let her ride the storm. Presently, some twenty-seven miles due south of Phoenix, the very port they had hoped to reach before the storm came, the ship runs under the lee of the island of Cauda (modern Gozzo).
The reference to the ship’s dinghy in verse 16 indicates the old custom of a ship’s towing it smaller craft in order to save deck space. The crew now takes the dinghy on board, lest it become lost at sea. A momentary relief from the storm, as the ship sits under the lee of Cauda, enables the sailors to undergird the ship’s hull with cables, to make the vessel’s planking tighter against the waves.
To impede the ship’s wild movement in the storm, a kedge anchor is dropped, because the ship has been drifting south so fast that the crew fears running onto the reef shoals of the African coast at Syrtis (west of Cyrene; cf. Pliny, Natural History 5.4.27). To make the ship ride higher in the water and to lower the chances of her being swamped, the crew jettisons some of the cargo (verse 18), and on the next day they do the same with the ship’s rigging (verse 19). The situation is clearly desperate.
With no way to see the stars, navigation has become impossible, and soon they have no idea where they are or in which direction they are headed. With no sunlight, even the most elementary sense of direction is lost.
Finally, Paul speaks up again. Though he foretells the loss of the ship, he reassures the crew and passengers of their survival. The reason for this certainty, he says, is his own destiny to arrive at Rome. Once again we touch here the theme of Rome as the goal of this entire story. It is a matter of destiny — dei — “it must be” (verses 24,26; cf. 19:21; 23:11).
Still drifting in the darkness, the men on the ship do not know where they are or in which direction they are drifting. Still afraid of crashing in darkness on the shoals of Africa, they will only afterwards learn that the direction of the wind has unexpectedly shifted toward the north, driving them up to the southern reaches of the Adriatic Sea. The storm lasts two weeks. At midnight on the fourteenth day, still unable to see or navigate, they think they hear breakers pounding on a shore to the west and realize that they may be coming to land. This impression is confirmed when they take repeated soundings of their depth.
Not knowing where they are, but fearing that the ship may crash onto rocks that they cannot see, some panicking sailors rather imprudently plot to escape in the ship’s dinghy, which they lower off the bow. At Paul’s warning, however, the centurion orders the boat cut loose to float away in the night.
Meanwhile the crew, in order to to prevent the ship’s continuing progress toward the unknown land, drops four anchors from the poop to hold it back. The situation during the rest of the night is tense, and no one has eaten very much during the past two weeks of storm. Finally it begins to grow light, and Paul suggests that breakfast would be a capital idea. Accordingly, he says grace. Everyone takes heart and begins to eat.
Afterwards they throw the rest of the ship’s cargo overboard in order to make the ship ride higher in the waves as it approaches land. (That is to say, a lighter ship can be beached closer to the land.) They cut away the four anchors at the stern and endeavor, under foresail, to beach the ship on the shore of a bay. (This inlet, on the northeast coast of Malta, is still known locally as St. Paul’s Bay.) The ship, once its bow runs aground on a spar, begins to break up from the violence of the pooping waves. They all scramble for shore as best they can, and everyone arrives safely. It has been a very rough two weeks, and no one is sad that it is over.
Tuesday, August 17
Acts 28: 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, Paul’s company once again sails 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.
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 are told that the Jews in Rome knew nothing about those events (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, “this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:18).
Wednesday, August 18
Job 1:1-12: Word-for-word, “A man there was, in the land of Uz,” commences the narrative prologue (1:1—2:13) that precedes the lengthy and complicated dialogue that is the long central core of this book.
This prologue contains six scenes: (1) an account of Job’s life and prosperity in 1:1-5; (2) the first discussion in heaven in 1:6-12; (3) Job’s loss of his children and possessions in 1:13-22; (4) the second discussion in heaven in 2:1-7; (5) Job’s affliction of the flesh in 2:7-10; (6) the arrival of Job’s three friends in 2:11-13.
Chapter 1, then, contains the first three of these scenes. In the first scene Job is called a devout man who feared God, a man who “eschewed evil.” He thus enjoyed the prosperity of Israel’s Wisdom literature promised to such folk. Indeed, Job is the very embodiment of the prosperous just man held up as a model in the Book of Proverbs.
The second scene describes the first discussion between God and “the Satan,” “the Adversary.” This “accuser of the brethren, who accuses them day and night” (Revelation 12:9-10), was also known to the prophet Zephaniah (3:1-4). Satan’s argument is simple and plausible: If a just man is so richly blest in his uprightness, who is to say that he is really so loyal to God? May it not be the case that the just man is simply taking good care of his own interest? Let him, then, be put to the test.
In this discussion we may make note of three things: First, the trial of Job will be like that of Abraham, who also enjoyed the rich blessings of a just man. Second, God is an optimist, in the sense that He has great confidence in Job. Third, Satan is a skeptic and a cynic, persuaded that men act only for selfish motives. Satan has a rather low view of man; God has a high view of man.
Thursday, August 19
Job 1:13-22: When God agrees to permit the testing of Job, the third scene describes Job’s loss of his children and possessions. Now begins Job’s testing. Indeed, here begins his tragedy. One does not have to live very long to perceive a certain perverseness about this world, life's strange but innate contrariness that cripples man's stride and corrodes his hope. Indeed, in terms of plain empirical verification, few lines of Holy Scripture seem supported by more and better evidence than St. Paul's testimony that "creation was subjected to futility" (Romans 8:20).
This dark sense of things is what the ancient Greeks called "tragedy," a subject they appear to have pondered more than most. The root word for this expression means "goat" (tragos), an animal commonly associated with stubbornness, mischief, aberrance, and even damnation (Matthew 25:32Ý33).
The Greeks observed that however slight the flaw in the fabric of a human life, implacable tragodia seemed ever able to spy it out and rip that life to shreds. The smallest flaw in his life's fabric became the entrance point of tragedy.
But even without the dramatic pangs of tragedy, the Greeks realized, life in this world was usually hard, very often a struggle, even a kind of combat. Classical paganism's greatest moral effort to deal with the toughness of life, including its tragic sense, was the philosophy known as Stoicism. The Stoic, realizing that most events in life—virtually all things outside himself— lay beyond his ability to control, resolved to bring discipline and serenity into his soul by putting aside his passions, bridling the reckless ambitions of his mind and will, and striving for inner freedom. One of the more notable Stoics, Epictetus, remarked that it was solely by abandoning the desire to master things outside himself that a man could gain mastery within himself. Only this inner mastery could mitigate the trials and misfortunes of life.
Holy Scripture, tracing all evil in the world, including especially death, to man's infidelity to God, normally uses the experience of evil as the occasion for calling man to repentance. This theme appears repeatedly in the Bible's historical and prophetic books. Job and Qoheleth, along with some of the Psalms, do include speculation about the structure of tragedy, but this line of thought remains exceptional in Holy Scripture.
More prominent is the theme of the Cross, which provides the key, not to unlock the correct explanation of evil, but to open a door to ultimate deliverance. It is the promise of the Cross that "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).
Friday, August 20
Job 2:1-13: Satan is endeavoring to provoke Job to “curse God” (1:11), the very sin that Job abhorred and which he had been afraid his children might commit (1:5). In the present chapter his own wife will tempt him in this way (2:9). The fourth, fifth and sixth scenes are the substance of this chapter.
In the fourth scene Satan, disappointed at Job’s response to the initial trials, wants to afflict Job in his very flesh, persuaded that this will bring out the worst in him; he predicts that Job, in such a case, will finally curse God (2:6). The reader discerns that God is actually taunting Satan here. Back in 1:9 Satan had asked if Job was a just man “for nothing” (higgam) meaning “without getting anything out of it.” Now God throws this expression back in Satan’s face in 2:3 — “you moved me to destroy him for nothing (higgam).”
That is to say, it was not Job that failed the test, but Satan. Satan now takes his cynicism to a new level. Believing that man is at root selfish, he wants Job put to the test in his own person, not simply in his family and possessions. Job’s success so far, Satan believes, amounts to nothing more than experience of survival. So, he contends, let Job’s survival be put at risk. Strip him down to his naked existence, deprived of health and reputation.
At that level, the cynic argues, Job will not fear God; he will curse God. God, ever the optimist, agrees to the trial, thus introducing the fifth scene, which describes Job’s sufferings. These involve loathsome and unsightly infections that are often mentioned by Job in the later discourses. Treated like a leper, Job goes to sit on the city dump. He is apparently dying, and his wife tempts him to curse God before he does so. In short, Job’s wife reacts very much as Satan predicted that Job would react.
Indeed, we do perceive a change in Job at this point. If he does not curse God, he also does not explicitly bless God as he had done in his first affliction (1:21). Instead, he humbly submits to God’s will (2:10). In each case, nonetheless, God’s confidence in Job is vindicated. Satan has done his worst to Job, but Job has not succumbed. Satan disappears and is never again mentioned in the book. The rest of the story concerns only God and men.
Job’s three friends now show up to introduce the sixth scene, which directly prepares for the long dialogues that make up the book’s central section. A week of silence ensues (2:13), parallel to the week of revelry with which the book began (1:2,4).
Saturday, August 21
Luke 6:1-11: Both of the stories in this section are concerned with the Sabbath. In the first (verses 1-5), Jesus defends the action of His apostles by a probative reference to the example of David and the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The Lord’s question to His enemies (“Have you not read . . .?”) is deliberately sarcastic, because these men preened themselves on their scholarly knowledge of the Scriptures. Jesus goes further, however, than merely citing an Old Testament example. He claims identity with the Old Testament God, obliquely referring to His own authority as Son of Man, which makes Him also “the Lord of the Sabbath.” This last term is simply the mirror-reverse of the traditional expression, “the Sabbath of the Lord.”
Jesus’ claim implicit in the title “Lord of the Sabbath” is vindicated in the second part of this section (verses 6-11), in which, with not the slightest outward gesture or word, He causes the man’s crippled hand to be made whole. The Lord’s action here is completely one of His will; it is totally effortless, involving no Sabbath-breaking labor of any kind. The consequent frustration of His enemies, unable to detect a single detail on which to accuse Him, fills them with fury.
Luke, alone among the evangelists in this respect, records three dominical healings on the Sabbath (cf. 13:10-17; 14:1-6). The present story he shares with Matthew (12:9-14) and Mark (3:1-6), the latter being very likely Luke’s immediate source.