Sunday, November 28
The First Sunday of Advent: In the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches of the West, the several weeks prior to Christmas are known as Advent, from a Latin word meaning “coming.” It happens that the beginning of Advent falls on the Sunday closest to November 30, the ancient feast day (in both East and West) of the Apostle Andrew. Today there are two Gospel readings, both of them descriptive of Andrew’s bringing new disciples to Jesus.
The observance of the season of Advent can be traced to the late fifth century in Italy and Gaul, perhaps a bit earlier in Spain. At the time of the Reformation it was preserved among the liturgical customs of the Anglicans and Lutherans; in more recent years it has been revived by other Protestant groups.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the penitential season of preparation for Christmas always begins on November 15, the day after the Feast of the Apostle Philip. For this reason it is popularly known as St. Philip’s Fast. A simple count of the days between November 15 and December 25 shows that this special period lasts exactly 40 days, the same as Lent.
Among Christians in the West, on the other hand, this preparatory season, which tends to be slightly less rigorous and often involves no special fasting at all, always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Thus, from year to year it will vary in length between 3 and 4 weeks, but always with four Sundays.
Several other features of Advent are worthy of comment:
First, in the West the First Sunday of Advent is treated as the beginning of the liturgical year. (In the East, the liturgical year does not begin at Advent but on September 1, which bears the traditional title, “Crown of the Year.” Its relationship to the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashana is obvious.)
Second, as a time of preparation for the birth and manifestation of Christ, the readings of this season have traditionally given special attention to the voice of prophecy, with a strong emphasis on the reading of Isaiah and John the Baptist’s preaching on repentance.
Third, during the twentieth century there arose the useful custom of the Advent wreath, both in church buildings and in Christian homes. This wreath lies horizontally and is adorned with four candles. The latter, symbolic of the four millennia covered in Old Testament history, are lit one at a time on each Saturday evening preceding the four Sundays of Advent, by way of marking the stages in the season until Christmas.
Fourth, traditionally the liturgical color for this season is violet or purple, symbolic of royalty (for the coming of the King) and of sobriety (as befits a season of renewed repentance). A softer rose color is sometimes substituted near the end of the season.
Fifth, because of the emphasis on repentance as the proper preparation for God, Advent is a season of great seriousness, not a time of festivity, much less of partying and secular concerns. Traditionally, it is not part of the “Christmas holidays,” and Christians of earlier times, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, would have been shocked at the current habit of treating this as a period of jolly good times and “Christmas cheer,” complete with office parties, the trimming of Christmas trees and other domestic adornments, the exchange of gifts, caroling, and even the singing of Christmas music in church.
All of these festive things are part of the celebration of Christmas itself, which traditionally lasts the 12 days from December 25 to January 6. Anticipating these properly Christmas activities in advance of Christmas itself considerably lessens the chance of our being properly prepared, by repentance, for the grace of that greater season; it also heightens the likelihood that we will fall prey to the worldly spirit that the commercial world would encourage during this time.
Monday, November 29
Revelation 7:1-10: The two visions in this chapter still pertain to the sixth seal. The opening of the first six seals has unleashed enormous sufferings on the earth, so prior to the opening of the seventh the vision of St. John faces the question, “Who shall stand? Who will be able to endure? Who will persevere to the end?” And John’s answer is, “the servants of God.”
Prior to the releasing of the final tribulation, therefore, the servants of God must be sealed. Their number 144,000 is a massive combination of the perfect number twelve ( 3 x 4, or the divine number multiplied by the human number; that is to say, the multiplied combination of God and man) multiplied to a gross and then multiplied again by a thousand. That is to say, a very big number that no man can count to (verse 9; cf. Genesis 15:5).
The final preservation of God’s elect was foreshadowed in their deliverance at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Because of a prophecy that told them all to flee (cf. Eusebius, Church History 3.5.3), no Christians were in Jerusalem when the city came under siege. Although up to a million Jews perished during the horrors of that siege and downfall, not one of them was a Christian.
The physical deliverance of those Christians thus became the symbol of the spiritual deliverance of God’s elect in the final tribulation. (And this latter deliverance is spiritual, not physical. There is no suggestion in Revelation that believers will be “raptured” away and spared the sufferings of the rest of the earth. Indeed, Revelation has a great deal to say about the sufferings of Christians during the final times.)
In order to be spiritually spared, they must be sealed. This sealing of God’s servants is done with the mark of the “tau,” the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ezekiel 9:1-7), which at that time was still cruciform. That is to say, God’s servants are sealed with the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads, which in fact was very early part of the rite of baptism (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.22). To be thus sealed was a sign that Christians belong to God (cf. Isaiah 44:5; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Galatians 6:17; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; John 6:27). This sealing with the mark of the true Paschal Lamb fulfilled the promise contained in that earlier marking of Israel with the sacrificial blood of its type (Exodus 12:21-23).
Both Ezekiel and Exodus are important for the understanding of this seal. Ezekiel’s reference was to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., of which everyone was aware who saw the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The passage in Exodus 12 had to do with the final of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn sons. This sealing in Revelation, then, involves a new Exodus, in which God’s people will be delivered, not left to share in the sin of the earthly Jerusalem.
Tuesday, November 30
The Feast of Saint Andrew: Christians both East and West have celebrated the memory of Andrew the Apostle on November 30 from a time beyond recorded memory.
If a Bible-reader takes the care to notice him, the Apostle Andrew is among the most attractive individuals in all of Holy Scripture. A certain measure of careful attention is necessary to lay hold of this fact, nonetheless, for Andrew does not really “put himself forward.” He does not come bounding forth impetuously from the biblical page, so to speak, like a David, a Moses, or a Paul. Indeed, this disinclination to draw explicit attention to himself is one of the very features that render Andrew so attractive.
Andrew serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in that scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling, Peter. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (cf. John 1:38Ý42).
As the first-called of the Church, then, Andrew was apparently recognized to enjoy a kind of special access to the Lord. Thus, when the Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem approached Philip (besides Andrew, the only other apostle with a Greek name) saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip went first to Andrew so that the two of them might together facilitate that meeting (John 12:21Ý22). Evidently Philip felt the need to have the helpful, accessible Andrew by his side at that time.
In all of the Gospels, however, there is one scene that seems most clearly to reveal this trait of friendly, relaxed availability in Andrew, and that scene is in John’s narrative of the multiplication of the loaves. Of the six New Testament stories on this theme, only John tells us of the special role of Andrew: “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’” (John 6:8Ý9).
Now, the attentive reader of Holy Scripture should be asking a question of the text at this point, namely, just how did Andrew know that there was a little boy present who was carrying those particular pieces of food? It is unlikely, after all, that a small boy would be holding all seven items in his hands at the same time. The five barley loaves and two little fish must have been carried in a sack of some sort. The lad was part of a large multitude that had been with Jesus for some days (Matthew 15:32), and his mother had packed him several meals in a lunch bag. By now, he has already eaten most of that food—the fresh fruit and sweets are gone, for instance. All the lad has left in that sack are five barley loaves, possibly a tad beyond their prime, and a couple of salted fish.
So how did Andrew know what was contained in that little boy’s bag? Surely the answer is obvious. He noticed the child standing near him, maybe alone, perhaps a bit distracted, and he simply asked in a cordial, engaging way, “Say there, son, what all did your mama pack for you in that bag?” From such friendly inquiries are missions and ministries begun, and miracles born.
Wednesday, December 1
Revelation 7:11-17: Beginning with an “amen” by which they respond to the acclamation of the saints in verse 10, the angels now join their voices in the praise of God (verse 11).
In John’s perspective, this vision is simultaneously past, present, and future. Inasmuch as the vision already contains fulfillment, its verbal tense is past. The “great tribulation,” moreover, has already started (for it is simultaneous with the “last times”), and therefore the present verbal tense, the ongoing perspective, is likewise proper. But inasmuch as there are still events to come (quickly!), John’s view is also directed toward the future.
One of the elders clarifies for the seer the identity of those clad in white robes (6:11; 7:9). They have already passed through the great tribulation, he tells John (verse 14; cf. Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:19), a description suggesting that the great tribulation, at least from their perspective, is already past. Yet, that tribulation itself will not be narrated until 13:7-10.
They are called “martyrs,” but this designation should be interpreted in a broader theological perspective that regards the call to martyrdom as implicit in the very nature of baptism. Indeed, from earliest times the white robe has been associated with baptism, that rite by which believers are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Christians do not receive their white robes in heaven; on the contrary, they will not even be admitted to heaven unless they are already wearing those white robes (22:14). To wear the white robe means to live “in the blood” (Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:2,19; 1 John 1:7).
The true servants of God, moreover, are engaged in His unceasing worship (verse 15; 21:5; 22:5); they thus share already in the life of heaven. In the final two verses of this chapter the verbs return to the future tense, indicating that there still remains an unfulfilled history through which God’s servants must pass. The image also shifts from the Lamb to the Shepherd, both images being essential to a complete Christology.
Thursday, December 2
Revelation 8:1-13: The number four is the traditional human number, because man divides his world into four directions, a front, a back, and two sides. He speaks of four winds, and so forth.
The divine number is three, because it is perceived to be the most stable. The triangle is the only stable geometric figure, the angles of which cannot be altered without changing the length of its sides. Similarly, the tripod is the only completely stable stand on a plane; anyone sitting on a wobbly chair knows that chairs seem to prefer three legs to four!
Any combination of three and four, therefore, represents the union of God and man, which is perfection. Thus, if three and four are mutually multiplied, we arrive at the sacred number twelve, which appears in many contexts in Holy Scripture, including the Book of Revelation. If three and four are added together, we arrive at the sacred number seven. Both sacred numbers, twelve and seven (one being the number of months in the year, and the other being the number of days in the week), are found ubiquitously in Holy Scripture.
The number seven, in fact, provides an important structural element throughout much of Revelation. Thus, there were seven letters to seven churches (Chapters 2 and 3), followed by a scroll with seven seals that needed to be opened. The opening of that seventh seal, in turn, will introduce the seven trumpets, which will be followed by seven bowls of plagues.
In the present text, the immediate response to the opening of the seventh seal is silence in heaven for thirty minutes (verse 1), while the angels with the seven trumpets prepare themselves (verses 2,6), and the throne room is ritually incensed (verse 3). The silence that accompanies the incensing is a time for prayers to be offered, the ascending of which is symbolized in the rising incense smoke (cf. Luke 1:9-10; Exodus 30:1-9; Talmud, “Tamid” 3.1). In the temple ritual of Israel, it is likely that thirty minutes was required for the priest to make the rounds of the temple with his censer, though it sometimes took longer (cf. Luke 1:21!).
We should also observe here that the altar of incense is the only altar in heaven (6:9; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7); there is no altar of holocausts in heaven because the purpose of that altar in Israel’s ancient temple was taken over by the Cross on the earth, where the definitive Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.
The trumpets, moreover, will be sounded by the seven “angels of the Presence” (cf. Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19). The trumpets themselves are best understood in two points of reference. First, there were seven trumpets sounded in the procession around the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6. It is useful to bear in mind that the Ark of the Covenant was borne at the end of that procession, after the seven trumpets. Similarly, at the end of the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant will once again appear (cf. 11:15,19). Second, that event of the fall of the Jericho was given a constant liturgical expression in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple by the sounding of the trumpets (1 Chronicles 15:24; Nehemiah 12:4-42). Almost anytime anything of significance happened in the worship at the temple, such as prayers, sacrifices, and so forth, the trumpets were sounded. Thus, the blare of the trumpet symbolized Israel’s constant and sustained worship of God. This is also the function of the trumpets here in Revelation 8.
The blowing of the seven trumpets parallels the opening of the seven seals in several close particulars. Thus, the first four trumpets form a unified whole (verses 7-12), as did the first four seals (6:1-8). As in the case of the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-17), the fifth and sixth trumpets will be expressed in a longer and separate narrative (9:1-21). Finally, a pair of visions will precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet (10:1—11:14), as another pair preceded the opening of the seventh seal (7:1-17).
In addition, by introducing various plagues upon the earth, the seventh trumpets find another extensive parallel in the seven bowls of plague that will follow them.
Finally, let us note that the plagues visited on the earth at the sounding of the trumpets, like the plagues visited on Egypt, do not touch those who, having been sealed, belong to God.
Friday, December 3
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings, at least not directly.
The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents reality without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.”
As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not the plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly about how long locusts live anyway. Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil.
Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11). It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domition, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, in a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.
Saturday, December 4
Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14).
The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people. Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39.
Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, two hundred million (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred thousand. The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell.
Both of these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but men’s hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:5-6.