Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.
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Trinity Sunday, May 22
Exodus 28: While its basic design is prescribed in verses 27-31, the priestly robe actually became more elaborate over the years and, in one respect at least, more symbolic. Eventually the robe of the high priest was adorned with stars and various pictures of objects from the whole earth, symbolizing the cosmic proportions of Israel’s intercessory mediation before God. When the high priest thus entered into the Holy of Holies, he represented all of the created world.
Just as the crown was the particular sign of the king, a specially designed turban was the distinguishing mark of the priest (verses 32-35). This adornment of the head is especially appropriate, because each office involves a ministry of “headship.” In the case of the priest, the turban bears a small golden plate an inscription on that may be translated “sanctuary of the Lord” or “consecration of the Lord” (hagiasma Kyriou). In early Christian literature this word hagiasma is used to designate church buildings, altars, the relics of the saints, holy water, oil lamps, and a variety of sacred objects, including (in Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Wonderworker, and John of Damascus) the Holy Communion.
Monday, May 23
Exodus 29: Although in the Old Testament membership in the priesthood was determined by bloodlines, the proper exercise of the priesthood also depended on an ordination that was unusually elaborate. The priest was a consecrated person, and in the Bible virtually all acts of consecration are celebrated and effected in the context of an appropriate ritual. In the case of the Old Testament priests, the consecration lasted one week, as long as God’s act of Creation (Exodus 29:35-37).
Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic dimension of the Old Testament sin-offering, as of all the Old Testament sacrifices. In this case, the burning of the sin-offering “outside the camp” was seen in the early Church as particularly symbolic, inasmuch as “the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:11-13 ). Historically, of course, Jesus was executed outside the city because that was the prescribed place of execution (cf. Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35f; 1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58), but the author of Hebrews saw that, notwithstanding what His executioners intended, this circumstance of Jesus’ death was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (cf. also Matthew21:39; Luke 20:15; John 19:20).
Especially to be noted verses 15-31 is the consecratory anointing with sacrificial blood. This ancient rite is the prophetic background for the powerful biblical image of being “bathed in the blood of the Lamb” (Hebrews 9:12-14; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5; 7:14).
The sacrifices of morning and evening (verses 38-46) eventually contributed to the structure of the daily life of prayer. They are the historical background of what eventually came to be called Matins (or Orthros) and Vespers (or Evensong) in the Church, the two major “canonical hours” of daily Christian worship. It is important to observe, however, that already in Judaism these two times of prayer became joined with another at noon (cf. Psalms 55:17; Daniel 6:10-13; 8:26; 9:21).
Tuesday, May 24
Exodus 30: The use of incense (verses 1-10,34-38) in connection with sacrificial worship may originally have served the purpose of disguising the very unpleasant aroma of the burning flesh of the sacrificial animals. In due course, however, the heavenward rising of the smoke gave the burning of incense an independent meaning as a symbol of man’s prayer rising to God (cf. Psalms 140:2; Luke 1:1:8-11; Revelation 8:3-5).
Thus, even in places as remote as India and Tibet, worshippers have continued to burn incense as a common religious symbol long after the discontinuing of animal sacrifice. The use of incense in man worship is as universal as the raising of the hands in praise and supplication. Indeed, when used often in prayer, the smell of incense, as of aromatic oils, has been known to work on the deeper stores of one’s memory in order to put the worshipper into a prayerful disposition, even before the prayer begins. Not surprisingly, the ritual burning of incense in Christian worship is at least as old as the construction of church buildings.
The collection of money to support the divine worship (verses 11-16) is not something alien or extraneous to the worship. It is itself a dimension of the proper worship of God. Indeed, whether used directly for the worship, or for the general support of the ministry, or for the relief of the poor, tithes and offerings are always an important component of our worship (cf. Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:16). Theognostos of Alexandria speaks of the “sacrifice of almsgiving.”
The use of aromatic oils in connection with worship (verses 22-33) was already so old that its significance is presumed in the text. First, the oil was consecratory. Serving the several purposes of nourishment, healing, and light, oil provides one of the richest symbols in human experience. Kings, prophets, and priests are all anointed with it to indicate and effect their consecration to service in God’s name. (In the twelfth century, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, preaching on the text “Thy name is as oil poured out” from the Song of Solomon, gave his monks a remarkable meditation on this threefold purpose of oil as symbolizing the invocation of the holy name of Jesus: the name of Jesus nourishes, it heals, it enlightens.)
Second, the sweet and pungent odor. Like certain sights (icons, stain-glass windows, etc.), sounds (psalmody, hymnody, etc.), and tastes (the Holy Communion, the blessed bread, etc.), certain smells can be deeply associated in the human psyche with past memories of worship. Ironically, man’s sense of smell can provide one of the most stable and enduring experiences of his religious memory. The worshipper worships God with his whole being and all his senses, including his olfactory sense.
Wednesday, May 25
Exodus 31: The gifts of the Holy Spirit are manifold, and they include the special charism that enables certain special individuals among the saints to adorn the instruments of the divine worship. Two of them, one from Judah and the other from Dan, are remembered here. The Holy Spirit did not stop granting that charism at the end of the Old Testament period, and even today God’s people very much depend on the enhancement of divine worship by architects, ikonographers, precious metal workers, book binders, glass blowers, wood and stone sculptors , designers of vestments, needle workers, and other artificers of God’s temple.
There seems to be no end of the number of times that God must remind the Israelites about the Sabbath (verses 12-17; See also 35:1-3 presently). Someone remarked that the people of the Bible manifested such devotion to work that they could be kept from it only by the threat of death!
While this remark may be only a witticism, it does indicate that the love of work and respect for honest labor that are such distinguishing features of Western Civilization (and the major explanation of its superior material prosperity) come chiefly from the Bible. It must be said that, with the exception of Hesiod in Greece and Virgil in Rome, love and respect for work were not features of our pagan classical heritage, in which physical labor was chiefly regarded as the function of slaves.
These two tables of the covenant (verse 18), written with the finger of God, were to be preserved in the Ark of the Covenant. In writing His law on tables of stone, God was also answering a deep need in the human spirit, for the stone inscription symbolizes the permanence of the established moral norm. There are numerous historical parallels testifying to this basic human need, such as the ethical inscriptions of Asoka in ancient India, and the precepts carved into the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Thursday, May 26
Exodus 32: Not least among the features endearing the prophet Moses to the mind of a believer is the memory of his efficacious and powerful intercession for God’s people in the hour of their apostasy. Thus, when St. Symeon the New Theologian sought to praise someone for this same quality, he could do no better than to compare him to Moses. “I know a man,” he wrote, “who desired the salvation of his brethren so fervently that he often sought God with burning tears and with his whole heart, in an excess of zeal worthy of Moses, that either his brethren might be saved with him, or that he might be condemned with them. For he was bound to them in the Holy Spirit by such a bond of love that he did not even wish to enter the kingdom of heaven if to do so meant being separated from them” (Book of Divine Love, Homily 54.1).
The biblical text that St. Symeon has in mind here is verse 32 of this chapter, where Moses prayed for sinful Israel in these words: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written!” That fervent prayer was more than a bare intercession; it was Moses’ generous self-offering by an association himself with the people’s guilt.
The context of that prayer is worth a detailed examination. There is, to begin with, a two-leveled scene: Moses is on top of Mount Sinai with God, while Aaron is down in the valley with the Israelites. Just prior to the prayer, two things have been transpiring simultaneously, both of them having to do with Aaron. On the mountain Moses has been receiving from the Lord a series of ordinances and statutes governing the consecration, vestments, liturgical instruments, and other matters concerning the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 25-31).
Meanwhile, however, Aaron was down in the valley proving himself unworthy of that priesthood, for the Bible describes his complicity in the construction and cult of the golden calf. At the people’s first idolatrous impulse, Aaron acceded to their wishes. “Break off the golden earrings,” he instructed them, “which are in the ears of your wives, you sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And when they did so, “he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.” (verses 2-4).
In this whole episode Aaron is portrayed as craven and double-minded, a hireling and no shepherd. Though very much involved in the people’s sin, he would never admit this association in their guilt. He becomes, rather, a classical example of rationalizing an infidelity, not regarding his action as the apostasy it was, but rather (as the saying goes) as “accepting people where they are.” “You know this people,” he would tell Moses, “they are set on evil” (verse 22). Refusing thus to assume responsibility, he attempts to disentangle himself from the people’s sin.
In a line that the biblical author must have regarded as a kind of mockery, the irresponsible and cowardly Aaron endeavors, moreover, to minimize his own considerable role in the matter, claiming that when the Israelites gave him the gold, “I cast it into the fire and this calf came out!” (verse 24)
Actively taking part in their apostasy, Aaron did not love the people enough to resist them. His attitude is described as the very opposite of that of Moses, whose prayer united him to the guilt of the people, even though he himself had not shared in their sin.
The self-sacrificing prayer of Moses, in which he deliberately associates himself with the guilt of the people, demonstrates an important quality of intercessory prayer in Holy Scripture. The biblical intercessor never stands apart from the state of those for whom he prays. Moses’ wish to be blotted from God’s book rather than see the Israelites perish is clearly repeated in the soul of St. Paul who wrote of those same Israelites: “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3).
The Bible’s supreme and defining example of this sacrificial intercession is that of the Suffering Servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), and “was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12), and who, though He knew not sin, became sin for us, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Friday, May 27
Exodus 33: The people had evidently not given all their jewelry for the construction of the calf (apparently not believing in the calf very much either), and they are now told not to wear their metallic adornments, as a sign of their repentance, for the rest of the journey. One may also note that, not wearing them, they will more readily part with them when the time comes for this jewelry to be employed in the adornment of the tabernacle.
Moses now asks something for himself (verses 12-22), confessing that the coming journey may be simply too much for him to endure unless the Lord gives him sufficient light to make coherent sense of it. God answers this prayer by granting him a special experience of the divine presence, described as a sort of oblique glance at God, catching sight of the Lord’s glory as it passes by. This description is as close as Moses can come to telling of this fleeting and indirect experience of God’s presence, which has been granted to many of the saints in all ages. St. Augustine (Questions on the Heptateuch 2.154) interprets “I will pass before you” as a reference to the Resurrection of the Lord. No man has ever seen God, except the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father. To the rest of us is given to perceive the glory of God shining on the face of Christ (cf. John 1:14-18; 2 Corinthians 3:7 — 4:6; 2 Peter 1:16-19).
Saturday, May 28
Exodus 34: It is to be observed that the two stone tables verses 1-9, though to the naked eye they may seem lifeless and hard, actually embody the awesome experience of Moses described in these verses. Regarded in faith and in the context of the covenant, they are alive with the divine presence.
Verses 10-28 are joined by the common theme of the purity required for an exclusive fidelity to God. The rich symbolic meaning of verses 29-35 is explained by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7 — 4:6:
“But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech-- unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
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