Sunday, February 13
THE First Sunday of Lent: As we begin this sacred season of spiritual striving, it is useful to reflect on the history and meaning of Lent.
Originally the word Lent, now associated exclusively with the observance of the liturgical year, was simply the Anglo-Saxon for “spring” and had no directly religious significance. In English usage, however, its reference was gradually limited to mean the season of preparation for Easter that does, in fact, occur in spring.
In most other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of “forty,” derived from the Latin quadragesimale. Traditionally this was a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain. Doubtless it was this combination of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together on a single mountain that determined the ancient choice of the Transfiguration story as the favorite Gospel reading of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches during the time just prior to the beginning of Lent.
As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
It may surprise modern Christians, however, to learn how important it was to earlier believers that some period of prayer and fasting, by way of preparation, should precede the ritual of baptism. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18). In The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), a work from Syria probably to be dated before A.D. 100, there is the prescription that says: “Prior to Baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. And be sure that the one who is to be baptized fasts for one or two days beforehand” (7.4). One notes in this context that this fasting is a sort of joint or community effort, involving more than the personal devotion of the one being baptized.
That communal aspect of the pre-baptismal fasting is even clearer in a text some half-century or so later. Writing a defense of the Christians to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian apologist Justin described how newcomers to the faith went about getting themselves baptized: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated” (First Apology 61). Written in Rome, this text also shows that the pre-baptismal fast by Christian congregations was not a practice limited to Syria.
Indeed, within the next half-century we find that discipline referred to in North Africa. In chapter 20 of his treatise On Baptism, the Christian apologist Tertullian remarks: “They who are about to be baptized ought to pray with repeated prayers, fasts, and bending of the knee, and vigils all the night through, along with the confession of all their prior sins.” He does not explicitly say that the fasting period should last 40 days, but he does link it to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
Gradually, however, the Christians did settle on a period of 40 days, and the custom was so firmly in place by year 325 that the Council of Nicaea, the same council that definitively fixed the canon of the New Testament, also determined that the 40 days preceding Easter should be a special time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptisms to be done on that day. Such were the origins of the season of Lent, which Christians from the fourth century onwards were very convinced were rooted in the time and teaching of the apostles themselves.
The fasting observed during this season is not, needless to say, total. Over the centuries it especially came to mean simply a tougher, more disciplined diet, excluding more “substantial” foods like meat and dairy products. Such fasting is accompanied by other practices of restraint, to encourage concentration on the things of God and the health of the soul. For example, many Christians foreswear watching television during this season. These disciplines are normally part of a stricter seasonal regimen, of which an important component is giving more time and attention to the study of Holy Scripture.
Monday, February 14
Proverbs 6: This chapter begins with four short poems that depict the qualities of folly. The first poem (verses 1-5) warns against financial irresponsibility in the form of unwise generosity towards one’s friends. Many a friendship has been spoiled by financial entanglements, and exhortations on this matter appear rather often in the Book of Proverbs (11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27).
The second poem (verses 6-11) is directed against laziness. Like Aesop, the author sends us to the animal world for moral lessons (24:30-34). The Septuagint version adds here a consideration of the bee to that of the ant.
The third poem (verses 12-15) depicts the ne’er-do-well schemer, full of plans for his own quick profit and the disadvantage of his fellow men. Avoid him, is the counsel.
The fourth poem (verses 16-19) is the first of the “numerical proverbs” in this book. These are found in all parts of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:30; Amos 1—2; Micah 5:4; Job 5:19; 40:5; Sirach 25:7; 26:5,19), and Proverbs will later give a series of them (30:15-31).
In verses 20-23 wisdom is described very much the way that Deuteronomy describes the Law. Indeed, the two things are nearly identified here (cf. especially verse 23, which may remind readers of Psalms 19 and 119).
The last part of the chapter (verses 24-35) returns to the theme of the adventurous woman, who would lure the young man to an early destruction. She is more dangerous than a thief (verses 30-35). Although the earlier penalty for adultery in Israel was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), the punishment envisaged here seems to be the humiliation of a flogging (verse 33).
Tuesday, February 15
Proverbs 7: The Book of Proverbs’ sustained warnings against sexual aberration, especially adultery, which directly attacks the institution of the family, argue that one of man’s chief areas of stewardship is sex.
Moreover, the book’s several warnings about adulteresses should be viewed as integral to the image of wisdom as Lady Wisdom, which a wise man is said to take as a bride. And just as Lady Wisdom becomes personified in a man’s own wife, Dame Folly is personified in the adulteress. The entire present chapter is devoted to this theme.
Mockery and sarcasm, rhetorical forms used in both the prophetic and sapiential literature of the Bible with some frequency, enjoy the advantage that comes of not taking someone or something as worthy of serious consideration. This chapter illustrates the advantage. The adventurous woman is held up to considerable ridicule, and so is the young fool who falls for her.
Indeed, the young man is here given the very words and gestures that she will employ to seduce him. She commences with flattery (verses 5,21); that is to say, she gives the young man “a positive self-image.” (A man who builds his self-confidence on a woman’s approval already demonstrates his immaturity. Prior to the present age it was taken as axiomatic that a young man should not even seek a woman’s approval, and had no right to expect it, until he had proven himself among men in manly pursuits. Men who must “prove” their manhood with a woman are in pretty sad shape.)
We see the young man walking down the street, dripping with inexperience, a virtual lamb ambling toward the slaughter (verses 6-7). The very fool, he is strolling aimlessly after dark (verse 6-7; Sirach 9:7), unaware that, even if he is not looking for trouble, trouble is looking for him (verses 10-12). The restless lady comes along and promises him a rollicking good time (verses 13-18), mentioning that her husband will be out of town for a while (verses 19-20). (One thinks of Mrs. Potiphar approaching Joseph in Genesis 39.) Thus is the young fellow suckered into sin (verses 21-23). The chapter ends with the exhortation to be on guard, especially keeping custody of the heart (verse 25). What is to be eschewed is the path to death (verse 27), the other of the Two Ways.
Wednesday, February 16
Proverbs 8: In this chapter personified Lady Wisdom herself speaks. Like the adulteress woman in the previous chapter, she too goes seeking the young man in the streets of the city (verse 2). She too appeals to the heart (verse 5). We observe, however, that she does not use flattery. The young man really needs her, and he has nothing to commend him without her.
In the biblical view, God has first loved us, not we God. Man can seek for wisdom, only inasmuch as wisdom seeks for man. And it is all men that she seeks (verse 4), not merely the Jews.
Wisdom teaches truth, the opposite of which is not merely error, but wickedness (verse 7), and truth is identified with righteousness (verse 8). Wisdom is the highest good, the treasure buried in the field, for the sake of which a man will sell all that he has to purchase that field (verses 10-11). Wisdom is the source of order and justice (verses 12-16). Hence, it is exactly what is required for a man to bring his life into a just order. What a man must have in his heart is the “love of wisdom” (verse 17), an expression called philosophia in Greek. All other gifts come from wisdom (verse 18-19).
Wisdom is the creating companion of God (verses 22-29; Sirach 1:4,8; Colossians1:15). As such, wisdom is older and more substantial than the physical world (Sirach 24:1-21; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-28). Indeed, wisdom was the Creator’s architect (verses 27-30).
Such is the wisdom concerned in the chapter’s final exhortation (verses 32-36), which is best read as the verso of the exhortation that closed the previous chapter (7:24-27).
Thursday, February 17
The Second Epistle to Timothy: In the spring of 57, when Paul left the city of Troas (the site of the ancient Troy), he had just missed a night's sleep (Acts 20:7-11). Perhaps simply wanting to clear his head and stretch his legs, he felt like walking that next part of his journey south towards the Holy Land, so he arranged with his companions, who were traveling around by ship, to meet him the next day on the other side of the cape. Spring had just arrived, and the weather was warm. Inadvertently, Paul left his heavy winter cloak behind at the house of Carpus, on the third floor of which house he had just spent the night at worship with the local congregation. Maybe one of Paul's companions was supposed to take that cloak on board the ship, along with some manuscripts and expensive blank parchments. Anyway, all of these things were accidentally left at Troas.
At Jerusalem the following week, Paul was arrested and spent two years in prison at Caesarea (Acts 24:27); then he was taken in bondage to Rome, where he spent two more years in house arrest (28:30).
As we see him now in this Second Epistle to Timothy, Paul's last extant letter and written from Rome, his end was approaching (2 Timothy 4:6f.). He has been questioned at judicial hearings (4:16) and can sense that there is not much time left. His personal physician Luke is the only one of his old missionary team who is in Rome with him (4:11), though the Asian brother Onesiphorus had visited recently (1:17). Paul wants to see Timothy one more time before the end, and he requests that Mark, from whom he had been briefly alienated some years before Acts 15:37-39), be brought along (2 Timothy 4:9-11).
It was at this point that Paul remembered that he still had a heavy winter cloak left behind several years ago at the home of Carpus in Troas, along with some manuscripts and valuable parchments. Yes, would Timothy please pick up these things and bring them with him when he comes over to Rome? (4:13) This is the setting of Paul’s last epistle.
2 Timothy 1:1-12: The opening of this epistle more closely represents Paul’s habitual style than do either of the other two pastoral letters. For instance, he refers to himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” as in 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Likewise, as in all his epistles except 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul begins with a prayer of thanksgiving (1:3-5).
As is often the case of older people preparing to die, Paul thought of his ancestors in the faith (1:3). He was possessed of a strong sense of identity of the Christian Church to its Jewish roots (cf. 1 Timothy 1:13), and he had especially been reflecting on this truth in the context of his recent trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 23:1; 24:14-16; 26:6,22).
The context of his impending death also prompted Paul to remember the tears that Timothy shed when the two of them were parted. With know that Timothy was still with him at Caesarea when he wrote the letters to Philemon (1:1) and the Colossians (1:1), but Timothy is not mentioned in Ephesians. Perhaps, indeed, Timothy was the messenger who carried that epistle from Caesarea to Asia. If so, that was perhaps the occasion on which Paul took leave of Timothy. Paul, then, remembering his own ancestors, also thought of Timothy’s (1:5).
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy here (1:7) strengthens our sense that the latter may have been naturally timid (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:10-11).
In reviewing the reasons for a godly assurance, Paul particularly stresses Christ’s victory over death. Many modern Christians tend to think of redemption as a deliverance from guilt. Paul, however, habitually speaks of redemption as a deliverance from the forces of death (Romans 5:21; 6:4; 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:42,54; cf. Hebrews 2:14-15). What is given in the Gospel, therefore, is life (zoe) and incorruption (aphtharsia) (1:10).
Such are Paul’s hopes as he prepares to die (1:12). He views his own impending death in those terms, placing his confidence in the One whom he has come to know.
Friday, February 18
2 Timothy 1:13—2:14: The “norm” (hypotyposis) of teaching that Timothy is to adopt consists in the “sound words” that he has heard from Paul (1:13). This exhortation is one of our earliest explicit references to a normative standard of creedal expression in the Church. What is “handed down” is a “norm of teaching” (paredothete typon didaches — Romans 6:17; cf. 1 Timothy 1:10; 6:3). This is the “trust” that Timothy is to “guard” (paratheken phylaxson — 1:14).
Paul is feeling isolated as he prepares to die at Rome. He is particularly distressed by either the ill treatment or neglect that he suffers on the part of the Asian Christians, to whom he had so completely devoted himself (1:15; cf. 4:16; Philippians 2:20-21). For whatever reason, Paul is especially disappointed in Phygelus and Hermogenes, two Christians otherwise unknown. To them he contrasts his treatment by the family of one Onesiphorus (1:16), apparently an Asian Christian who came to visit him at Rome (1:17).
Chapter Two begins with a reference to what is called the “apostolic succession.” In the mind of the Apostle Paul the correct doctrine of the Church is transmitted through a ministry that traces its roots back to the apostles themselves. Paul has transmitted this doctrine to the “hearing” of Timothy (ekousas, whence the English “acoustics”), who is to hand it on (parathou to other faithful men, who can teach (didaxsai) others yet (2:2; cf. 1:14; 1 Timothy 6:20; Titus 1:9). In this way there is to be an unbroken line of apostolic tradition, by which the Gospel is maintained down through the ages. Such is Paul’s vision of how a tradition of teaching ministry safeguards the truth and integrity of the Gospel.
Among the Christian Apologists of the second century this vision of Paul was applied with critical effect against other teachers who are able to demonstrate no historical continuity with the Apostles themselves. That is to say, such continuity was subject to documentable verification.
This transmission of the Gospel involves more than mere words. It must be accompanied by a correct understanding that only the Lord can provide (2:7). Indeed, the correct transmission can only be effected “through the Holy Spirit” (1:14).
In the context of this epistle, Paul has in mind to refute a certain heresy in 2:17-18. Since this heresy pertains to the Resurrection, Paul begins by exhorting Timothy to bear in mind the historical fact that Jesus Christ, “of the seed of David,” was raised from the dead (2:8). The Gospel, that is to say, is not separable from documented history.
Saturday, February 19
2 Timothy 2:15-26: Paul now mentions a teaching opposed to the Gospel. It is the heresy of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who so spriritualize the meaning of the word “Resurrection” as to rob it of its historical and concrete existence (2:17-18; 1 Timothy 4:3-5). This heresy will be repeated in the second century by Demas, Hermogenes, and Menander (cf. The Acts of Paul and Thecla 14; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 1.23.5).
Paul’s assertion that “the firm foundation of God stands” is an apparent reference to the Church, as in 1 Timothy 3:15. The Church, in Paul’s view, is not some sort of nebulous, invisible entity. It is a concrete historical organism, in which the identical Gospel is conveyed through the passage of time. The Church, that is to say, is an “organized religion.” It is a great house (2:20).
By the time that Paul was writing this epistle, the Church itself was growing larger, and it included unworthy members, such as the individuals about whom Paul has been discoursing. The presence of unworthy members in the Church is the sort of problem we see reflected in the Gospel of Matthew (13:24-30,36-40,47-49).
“Those who call upon the name of the Lord” is an expression synonymous with “Christian” (2:22; cf. Acts 9:14,21; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Romans 10:12).
In resisting the efforts of heretics, the servant of the Lord is to be modest and patient, avoiding fights and contentions if possible. His goal is to be the conversion of the erring (2:23-26).