Sunday, January 2
Matthew 4:18-25: This second pericope (verses18-22) about the ministry in Galilee is the calling of the first Apostles. As fishermen, these follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church. This image of the Church’s ministry as a fishing net will appear later as a parable in 13:47.
Jesus begins now to assemble the Twelve, to whose hands He will, in the very last scene in Matthew’s Gospel, commit the care of His Church. Although John’s Gospel testifies that Andrew was the first of the Twelve to be called, his brother Simon is habitually named first (cf. 10:2), as in the present story. Simon is here already called by his symbolic name “Rock” (Kephas in Aramaic, Peter in Greek), which the Lord will confer upon this apostle when the latter gives voice to the Church’s confession of Jesus as the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16-18). Throughout the New Testament we observe a primacy of Simon Peter among the Twelve, as their leader and spokesman.
If the fishermen’s net is symbolic of the mission of the Church, the act of James and John in “repairing” that net also lends itself to a symbolic meaning. In truth, the verb employed here to designate that act of “repairing” (katartizo) appears in the New Testament in reference to mending, or making whole, the Church, which is frequently threatened by the danger of divisions (1 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:12; Hebrews 13:21; 1 Peter 5:10). Thus we find this verb in the context of the potential schism at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11) and the crisis in Galatia (Galatians 6:1).
In his description of the calling of these two sets of brothers, Matthew stresses that their following of the Lord was immediate.
In the third Galilean pericope (verses 23-25), the fishing activity is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation for the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.” The people are gathering here at the end of chapter 4, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.
In these three verses (23-25) we are also given a summary of what is about to happen. Jesus is portrayed as a teacher and preacher, and then as a healer. His teaching and preaching will fill chapters 5-7, and the healings mentioned here will be detailed in chapters 8-9. Indeed, Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 seem to form the two bookends, as it were, of this section.
Monday, January 3
Genesis 3: We notice several things about the Fall. First, Adam and Eve become aware of themselves as naked, as exposed. They are no longer comfortable with themselves (verse 7). They hide from God (verse 8). Then, when God questions Adam, the latter immediately casts the blame on his wife, and indirectly on God Himself, who gave Adam that wife (verses 11-12). Eve, in her turn blames the snake (verse 12). God then curses all three, in reverse order: first the snake (verses 14-15), then Eve (verse 16), and finally Adam (verses 17-19).
Even as God drives Adam and Eve from the garden, however, He provides better clothing for them (verse 21). This is important. Man’s sin created the problem of nakedness, and hence the solution of clothing, as described here in Genesis 3. In the Bible’s final book, nonetheless, when man’s sin has in every last sense been conquered, we do not see the human race returned to the nakedness of its primitive, unfallen state. The new man is Christ is clothed. We are described in the Book of Revelation as wearing the white robes of glory. Grace, that is to say, does more than reverse the effects of sin; it transforms the effects of sin. Our new innocence in Christ is not to be identified as simply the earlier innocence of Adam. The effect of sin is not merely removed; it is assumed into a more ample transformation.
As we go on in Genesis and the rest of Holy Scripture we will meet other examples of this mysterious transformation of certain human experiences, especially cultural forms, that are associated in their origin, or at least their earliest historical expression, with the Fall. That is to say, the new life in Christ includes His taking hold of and entirely remolding certain components of life that were not part man’s original, innocent state. Even as He vanquishes sin, God does not simply undo or reverse the effects of man’s Fall. Rather, He assumes these same effects, particularly cultural effects, into a larger expression of man’s ascent.
The human race has fallen in Chapter 3. Man is about to fall even lower in Chapter 4.
Tuesday, January 4
Matthew 5:17-26: In addition to the fulfillment of prophecy (which is certainly a strong motif in Matthew), Jesus also fulfills the Law. Indeed, much more than other author of the New Testament, Matthew stresses Jesus’ teaching as the “fulfillment” of the Law.
The notion has been around for some time that Christ came to abolish the Law. It is certainly true that the Law, completely on its own, carries a curse by reason of man’s inability to fulfill it (Galatians 3:10, and it is certainly true that in Christ we are redeemed from that curse (3:13), but it is a distortion to imagine that Christians are bound by less law than were the Jews. On the contrary, Christians are to be taught to “observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). “If you love Me,” said Jesus, “keep My commandments” (John 14:15), and He announces here that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
This Christian fulfillment of the Law does not weaken the Law; it strengthens it. Christians are not called to a lesser righteousness, but to a superior—an exceeding—righteousness. In their conduct they are summoned to exceed the righteousness of those who maintained merely the letter of the Mosaic Law. This moral summons is still “Gospel,” however; it is still grace. It is possible only because of Jesus. It is not the Mosaic Law, as such, that Christians are called to obey, but the Mosaic Law as it viewed through the lens of Jesus. For Christians, in fact, the Mosaic Law has no application except in Jesus. Consequently, a simple and sustained contrast between Law and Gospel appears to provide an inadequate key to the interpretation of Christian moral duty.
The appropriate contrast is, rather, between Christian moral duty and the righteousness of “the scribes and Pharisees,” a combination that Matthew uses seven times to designate the moral norms accepted by official Judaism. (The expression “enter the kingdom of heaven” also appears here for the first of many times in Matthew.)
This principle of a superior righteousness, enunciated here in verses 17-20, is illustrated in the six antitheses that immediately follow. Each of these is based on some form of “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say unto you.” The difference pertains to both theology and history. Theologically, the importance words are “but I say,” which means that the new law has to do with the person of Jesus. Historically, the new situation revealed in the person of Jesus renders everything else “old.” The appearance of Jesus in this world divides history into a before and an after. The “I say” places Jesus on the same level as the Voice that Moses heard on Mount Sinai.
The first of these six antitheses, beginning in verses 21, has to do with anger. As such, it serves also to illustrate the patience required to fulfill the final two of the Beatitudes, the peacemakers and those suffering persecution for justice’s sake (5:9-11).
It is clear that Jesus expects a much stronger control of one’s anger than did the Mosaic Law, which prohibited only murder and physical harm. The understood context of these verses, as in most of the Sermon on the Mount, is not that formed of Jesus’ immediate listeners. It is, rather, the Christian congregation to whom Matthew is aiming this Gospel. That is to say, in these verses Matthew is addressing situations that may arise within the Christian congregation; his field of concern is thus identical to that of the discourse in chapter 18. Hence, the emphasis here on the “brother.”
With respect to anger itself, the content of the command of Jesus is not entirely new. The Old Testament already contained prohibitions against anger, especially in the Wisdom literature, where the angry person was contrasted with the wise person (cf. Proverbs 6:34; 15:1, and so on). One finds this contrast in the New Testament as well (cf. James 1:19-20).
To the anger of man is contrasted the wrath of God. According to Matthew, the wrath of God is directed against all anger of man, all insulting speech, all offenses against Christian brotherhood (6:14-15; 18:35; 25:41). It is always the Christian congregation that Matthew has in mind. Thus, it seems certain that in verses 23-24 Matthew is thinking of participation in the Holy Eucharist; this interpretation of this saying of Jesus was already explicit in the first century, as we discern in the Didache 14.2.
Wednesday, January 5
Genesis 5: In this first biblical genealogy we draw special attention to the figure of Enoch. After the Epistle to the Hebrews gives its initial definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), there follows the famous list of the “great cloud of witnesses,” those “elders” who “obtained a good testimony” by exemplifying such faith (12:1).
One can hardly fail to observe in this list the strong emphasis on death with respect to this saving faith. Throughout Hebrews 11 faith has to do with how one dies, and “all these died in faith” (11:13). This emphasis on death in the context of faith renders very interesting the inclusion of Enoch among the list of faith’s exemplars, because Enoch departed this world in some way other than death. Indeed, in the genealogy here in Genesis 5, the verb “died” eight times with respect to the patriarchs from Adam to Lamech, but in the case of Enoch, “the seventh from Adam” (Jude 14), our text says simply he “walked with God, and he was not found (ouk eurisketo), for God removed (metetheken) him” (verse 24).
By way of commentary on this passage, the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “By faith Enoch was removed (metethe) so that he should not see death, and was not found (ouk eurisketo), because God removed (metetheken) him; for before his removal (metatheseos) he was witnessed to have pleased (euariestekenai) God” (11:5). That ancient “witness,” cited here in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is found in the Book of Wisdom, where Enoch is thus described: “He was pleasing (euarestos) to God and was beloved of Him, so that, living among sinners, he was removed (metetethe). He was snatched away so that evil would not alter his understanding, nor deceit beguile his soul. For the malice of what is worthless takes away things of worth, and the roving of passion subverts a guileless mind. Made perfect (teleotheis) in a short time, he filled out massive times, for his soul pleased (areste) God. So He rushed him from the midst of evil” (4:10-14).
Such is the biblical witness about the “short time” that Enoch spent on this earth (a mere 365 years, according to verse 23). Unlike the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11, Enoch did not die in faith, for the unusual reason that he did not die at all. He nonetheless deserved a place in that heroic list, we are told, because “he pleased God” by his faith. Thus, when we believers “draw near unto the Throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), when we approach “the general assembly and church of the firstborn registered in heaven” (12:23), there stands Enoch among “the spirits of just men made perfect (teteleiomenon).”
Living before both Noah, Abraham, and Moses, Enoch was participant in none of the covenants associated with these men. Not a single line of Holy Scripture was yet written for him to read. Much less did Enoch ever hear the message of salvation preached by the Apostles. Yet, he was so pleasing to God by his faith as to be snatched away before his time, not suffering that common lot of death from which the Almighty spared not even His own Son.
What, exactly, did Enoch believe, then, that he should be such a champion of faith, an example for the Church until the end of time? The Epistle to the Hebrews explains: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). This was the sum total of all that Enoch’s faith told Him — God’s existence and his own duty to seek God to obtain the singular blessing that Holy Scripture ascribes to him. It is the Bible’s portrayal of Enoch, then, that affords us some hope for the salvation of those millions of human beings who must pass their lives on that bare minimum of theological information, for which Enoch rendered such a marvelous account.
Thursday, January 6
Epiphany: This is the last of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. The Greek name of the feast, by which it is called among Christians in the West, means simply “manifestation.” In the East itself, it is called Theophany, or “manifestation of God.” The fact that it has a Greek name even in the West indicates the historical fact that this feast originated in the East.
Now part of the Christmas season, the origin of Epiphany seems to be at least as old as Christmas itself, perhaps earlier. Dating back to the second century, Epiphany was celebrating the baptism of Jesus, at which, not only is He revealed as God’s Son, but the Father and the Holy Spirit are revealed as well. That is to say, it is a feast of the revelation of the Holy Trinity. This is the still the emphasis of the feast among Christians in the East.
This feast was not adopted in the West until the fourth century, and then only as part of the Christmas cycle. In the West it celebrates a threefold revelation. First, there is the revelation of the newborn King to the Gentiles, in the persons of the Magi (“We Three Kings of Orient Are”). In the Gospel according to Matthew, which alone records this event, it stands parallel to the Great Commission to the Gentiles at the end of that Gospel.
Second, there is the revelation of Jesus’ true identity at His baptism, when the voice of the Father bears witness to Him, and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, testifies further that He is the Son of God.
Third, there is the marriage feast at Cana, at which Jesus did “the first of His signs” and “manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”
The lectionary traditions of the West consistently included all three of these events. For example, among the Anglicans, Archbishop Cranmer took care to put all three Scripture readings into the Book of Common Prayer for this day. In the lectionary of the Daily Devotional Guide we have taken provided that all three readings be done either today or tomorrow.
Friday, January 7
1 Peter 3:15-22: Believers must ever be ready to provide a “defense” (apologia) to someone who seeks a reason (logos, whence “logic”) for the hope that is in them (verse 15; Colossians 4:5-6). Peter acknowledges here that Christian hope should be able to address rational thought and defend itself in rational terms.
This does not mean that Christian hope is based on truths discerned by unaided reason. It does mean, however, that Christian hope is not irrational. The Christian, in defending the hope that is within himself to someone inquiring from outside himself, requires the skills of reason, imagination, and language to make that hope intelligible and persuasive. This is the task of Christian “apologetics,” a term derived from the Greek apologia, translated here as “defense.” The neglect of a clear and convincing apologetics may cause the Christian hope to appear as an irrational fantasy.
On the other hand, the most convincing argument for the validity of the Christian hope is the modest, godly life of those who cling to it with a clear conscience (verse 16).
To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings (verses 17-18). As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.
In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which became took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article of the Nicene Creed (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 6.6). This is the great mystery that the Church celebrates in her liturgical texts for Holy Saturday each spring.
Peter was much taken with the character of Noah (verse 20), to who he will return in his Second Epistle (2:5). The deliverance of Noah and his family in the Flood became a classical type of Christian Baptism (verse 21; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 138).
Saturday, January 8
Genesis 8: The dove sent out by Noah is also rich in symbolism. Since, as we have seen, baptism is the fulfillment of that mystery of which the flood was a type, we should rather expect to find the dove to appear in the New Testament descriptions of baptism, and indeed it does. At the baptism of our Lord, the Holy Spirit assumes that form in order to confirm the testimony of the Father, who proclaims Jesus His beloved Son.
Thus, in the fourth century St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Some say that, just as salvation came in the time of Noah by the wood and the water, and as the dove came back to Noah in the evening with an olive branch, so, they say, the Holy Spirit descended on the true Noah, the author of the new creation, when the spiritual dove came upon Him at His baptism, to demonstrate that He it is who, by the wood of the cross, confers salvation on believers, and who, by His death at eventide, conferred on the world the grace of salvation.”
The ark, on which the Spirit descends, is a symbol of the Church, the vessel of salvation. In the ironical words of Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-third century, “If anyone was saved outside the ark of Noah, so a person outside the Church can now be saved” (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 6). That is to say, it is impossible to be saved outside of the Church, because the name of Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven given us by which we must be saved, and the Ark-Church is the vessel, which holds all of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ unto their salvation.
We may summarize the Christian teaching on the story of the Flood with these words of John Chrysostom in the second half of the fourth century: “The narrative of the Flood is a mystery, and its details are a type of things to come. The ark is the Church; Noah is Christ; the dove, the Holy Spirit; the olive branch, the divine goodness. As in the midst of the sea, the ark protected those who were within it, so the Church saves those who are saved” (Homily on Lazarus 6).