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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Sunday, December 25
Hebrews 2:1-19: The motif in this chapter is the solidarity of Jesus with humanity, and more specifically with His Church. The author even puts on the lips of our Lord the works of the Psalmist, ˝I will announce your name to My brethren; in the midst of the Church I will sing to Youţ (verse 12). This is one of the places in Holy Scripture where Jesus is explicitly pictured as a ˝brotherţ (cf. Matthew 25:40; 28:10; Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17; Romans 8:29).
Elaborating this idea of the Lord's solidarity with us, Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the ˝sanctifierţ (hagiazon) and Christians as the ˝sanctifiedţ (hagiazomenoi), both sharing the same stock, both joined in a common humanity (verse 11).
Jesus shares the ˝flesh and bloodţ of other human beings (verse 14). This expression, meaning ˝humanity,ţ is used twice in this sense in Sirach and three times elsewhere in the New Testament.
The flesh and blood shared by Jesus, however, is a flesh and blood marked by death. Jesus, having no sin, nonetheless assumes the fallen flesh and blood of common humanity, in which all of us are enslaved by the fear of death (verse 15). By participating in our flesh and blood, Jesus shares also our death and the fear thereof. Later on this author will speak of Jesus' fear of death and His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani (5:7).
The Son of God did not become an angel; he took hold of the seed of Abraham (verse 16), entering a history marked by sin in the process of being redeemed. He was made in all respects like His brethren (verse 17).
This is also the reason why He is the priest of humanity (verse 18), inasmuch as all priests are taken from among men, as this author will later insist. Priests must be at one with those on whose behalf they are priests.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews there is an essential awareness of how Christ is at one with us in our infirmity. His flesh was destined for death. His nerves sensed its approach. All this is implied in the doctrine of the Incarnation, the ˝enfleshingţ of God. Jesus is not some sort of ethereal being. On the contrary, he is related to us by reason of sharing in our own situation of fear. Because of this can we partake of His fidelity to God and consecration as a priest on our behalf.
We need no longer, then, be afraid, at least not to the point of enslavement. The Son of God has tasted the processes of our weakness, and He has conferred on flesh and blood the dynamism of His victory over death.
Monday, December 26
The Feast of St. Stephen: Christians have been celebrating this feast day of the martyr Stephen on December 26 (December 27 among Eastern Christians) from the very earliest period, long before they began celebrating Christmas on December 25. Those preachers who being by asking ˝Why do we celebrate Stephen's feast right after Christmas?ţ should better inquire ˝Why do we celebrate Christmas so close to the feast of Stephen?ţ
Opposition to Stephen, as we see it growing in the Acts of the Apostles, emanated from Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem. This is not hard to understand. Stephen had at one time been one of them, and, after his conversion to Christ, they resented their former associate as a renegade and traitor. As the perceived leader of seven such converts, he received the sharp edge of their wrath and was hauled before the Sanhedrin (6:12). It would seem that they were afraid of him. As a master of debate, he might convert even more of their own members to the Christian faith (6:10).
The account in Acts, which contains Stephen's defense before the Sanhedrin, stresses that he was ˝full of the Spiritţ (6:5,10; 7:55), a bright illustration of the Lord's promise of what the Spirit would do for those put on trial for His name (Mark 3:11).
Modern readers, however, deprived of Stephen's impressive presence, sometimes get bogged down in the details of his defense. His message will be easier to understand if we bear in mind the indictment brought against him. He was accused of being disrespectful of the Temple and of the traditions of Moses.
Stephen, in his defense makes two important points;
First, Moses himself had complained, during his own lifetime, of being misunderstood and treated disrespectfully by the Jews (7:25,35,39,51). Hence, they were in no position to bring such an accusation against Stephen!
Second, with respect to the charge that he spoke against the Temple (6:13), Stephen not only did not deny the accusation, he even turns it as a reproach against his accusers, censuring them for their idolatrous attitude toward the Temple (7:47-50). For his accusers, Stephen implied, the Temple had become just another Golden Calf (7:41).
It is worth bearing mind a certain socio-economic dimension to the accusation brought against Stephen. In fact, the citizens of Jerusalem had an enormous economic interest invested in the Temple.
It is worth considering the following remarks of Gerd Theissen in this respect: ˝Almost all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were indirectly dependent on the temple. Cattle-dealers, money-changers, tanners and shoemakers lived off it. The pilgrims brought money into the city and the population provided services for them. The economy of Jerusalem was based on a foreign trace which arose out of religion. Otherwise, there were no significant sources of income. The surroundings were not fertile. There was no industry. . . . This meant that the religious significance of the city had to be stressed more strongly. Without it, Jerusalem simply would not have been able to exist. Jerusalem was a city without an adequate basis for its status. . . . Quite a significant proportion of the population was directly dependent on the temple. The temple paid good wages. . . . The reason for the social significance of the temple as the largest employer in Jerusalem was the rebuilding of the temple, which lasted from 20/19 BC to AD 62/64. . . . Even in the time of Herod, the temple building had the character of a job-creating programme . . .ţ (Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, 52-53).
Stephen, then, was taking on the whole operation, at once religious, national, and economic. His defense was virtually suicidal. He takes his place with the prophets of old, perhaps especially Jeremiah, who also had some rough things to say of those whose dependence on the Temple had become a kind of superstition.
Tuesday, December 27
Hebrews 3:1-19: The previous chapter of Hebrews had much to say of the solidarity of Jesus with those who believe in him. The present chapter pursues this theme by using the metaphor of the house. Indeed, between verses 2 and 6 the word ˝house,ţ invoked as a metaphor for the Church, appears six times.
In Holy Scripture being a Christian, a disciple of Christ, is inseparable from belonging to the house of God. The New Testament recognizes no such thing as accepting Jesus apart from accepting the Church. There is no such thing as a private Christianity, providing fellowship with Jesus but not fellowship with the Church that Jesus founded. One does not become a Christian by asking Jesus to enter his heart. He becomes a Christian by verbally and explicitly proclaiming his faith in Jesus and joining the Church through the very public and recorded act of Baptism.
In employing the image of the house to describe the Christian life, the author of Hebrews adopted what was a common metaphor in New Testament times. We find it, for instance, in Ephesians 2:19, 1 Timothy 3:15, and 1 Peter 4:17. The image indicates that being a Christian is a family affair.
Being a Christian is likewise an experience in ˝sharing.ţ The Christian is always a ˝partaker,ţ a ˝sharerţ (metochos). This word is found only six times in the whole New Testament, and five of those times are in the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the present chapter, in connection with the house, the word appears twice.
The point of such repetition is the principle that whatever Christians have in the order of the Spirit, they have in virtue of a participation. In being ˝partakers of Christţ (verse 14), they are ˝partakers of the Holy Spiritţ (6:4). In the life of the Spirit, there is no such thing as a private operator. We share, says Hebrews, a common calling, a common Lord, a common Holy Spirit. There is no realm of the life in God that someone can corner for his own. There is no such thing as supernatural private property. It is all given to us in such a way as to be shared; no one may lay a private claim on it. The Church is a household of sharers.
Wednesday, December 28
Amos 1: The first two chapters of this book contain the prophet's condemnation of the nations in and immediately around the Holy Land. Each condemnation commences with the repetition, ˝for three offenses and for four.ţ In addition to its rhetorical flair, this device also indicates the number seven, the number of perfection and completion. The crimes of the nations, says Amos, are now complete; their guilt is fully ripe.
The condemnations begin with Syria, to the northeast of Israel, and its capital at Damascus (verses 3-5). This was the major military power in the region. By the time of Amos, Syria had waged numerous wars against Israel (1 Kings17-2 Kings 14), seizing territory and enslaving populations. Many of these battles had taken place in Gilead, the Transjordanian part of Israel, bordering Syria (verse 3). It had often been devastated (2 Kings 10:32-33).
Hazael (842-806), the founder of the current dynasty in Syria, had defeated the combined armies of Israel and Judah at the battle of Ramoth-gilead in 842 (1 Kings 22), annexing all of Transjordania. Benhadad III was his son.
The obscure mention of Kir (verse 5) apparently refers to the fall of Damascus to the Assyrians in 732, when this prophecy was fulfilled (2 Kings 16:9).
Amos now draws a line from Syria southwest to Philistia (verses 6-8), where four of its five ancient cities are still alive and engaged in evil. The prophet especially condemns its involvement in slave trade, a practice that was included in many ancient wars.
The mention of commerce in slavery then sends the mind of Amos up to the seagoing power of Phoenicia (verses 9-10). One recalls that it was largely Israel's relations with Phoenicia, especially as enhanced by the marriage of Ahab to Jezebel (1 Kings 16:1), that had introduced so many moral defilements into the region.
Having previously traced a line southwest from Syria to Philistia, Amos now draws a line southeast from Phoenicia to Edom (verses 11-12), thus completing his ˝X that marks the spot.ţ Teman and Bozrah are two chief cities of the Edomites. This nation he condemns for betraying its ancient biological ties with Israel, inasmuch as the father of the Edomites was Esau, the twin brother of Jacob.
Having arrived in the south and just east of the Dead Sea, Amos next moves north along the east side of the Jordan to take account of Moab and Ammon. He begins with Ammon (verses 13-15). Its capital, Rabbah, is identical with the modern city of Aman, the capital of the nation of Jordan.
Thursday, December 29
Amos 2: Between Edom and Ammon sits the fertile plain of Moab. Its citizens, like those of Ammon, were descended from Lot, the offspring of his two daughters (Genesis 19:37-39). Hence they, like the Edomites, were related by blood to the children of Israel.
They, too, likewise fall under the censure of Amos (verses 1-3), specifically for the desecration of a tomb. Special mention is made of Kerioth, the cultic center of the Moabite god Chemosh.
Next comes the condemnation of Judah (verses 4-5), the nation of Amos himself (1:1). This condemnation differs from all the preceding in two ways. First, it does not single out any ˝socialţ sins, such as the slave trade (1:6,9), torture and slaughter (1:3), abortion (1:13), warfare (1:11), and tomb desecration (2:1). Second, offense of Judah is less specific. In the eyes of Amos, Judah has just lost its way in general.
At this point those listening to Amos may have breathed a sigh of relief. The prophet, having spoken against Judah, had reached the number seven (as we hope the attentive reader has noticed), the number of completion, so the listeners could be excused if they imagined him to be finished. So far, so good, they thought. Amos had done the complete number, but he had not mentioned them. In fact, they may have gone on to reflect, this Amos is making a lot of sense. He has identified all the bad guys, and it's not us!
Imagine their shock, therefore, when Amos turned on them. He did so, moreover, for a full eleven verses, more than three times the length of any previous condemnation. No, said the prophet, Israel would not be spared. For its oppression of the poor (verse 6), its prostitution (verse 7), and its religious hypocrisy (verse 8), Israel deserved more punishment than those who had inhabited the Holy Land before them (verse 9).
No strength of their own would deliver Israel, he insisted. God is singularly unimpressed by the things that fallen man strives for, and He is not on the side of the strong (verses 13-16).
If the citizens of Israel felt, at this point, that Amos was laying it on a bit thick, they were not about to feel relieved. He still had seven more chapters to go.
Friday, December 30
Amos 3: This next section of Amos is made up of sermons that begin with ˝Hear!ţ (3:1-5:6) or ˝Woe!ţ (5:7-6:14). They are all directed against Israel, its capital Samaria sometimes serving as the equivalent.
The previous chapter had ended with a reminder of God's redemptive favors toward His people (2:9-11). Israel is now chastised for failing to respond to the Lord's generous call. They alone, of all the peoples of the earth had the Lord acknowledged as His own. Therefore, of them was more expected, and their punishment will be correspondingly more severe (verse 2).
We suspect that the people of Israel, at this point, challenged the credentials of Amos to address them in such terms, because we suddenly find him defending his mission to speak (verses 3-8). As we shall see, this was not the only occasion when Amos was thus challenged, and in this respect he puts the Christian reader in mind of the Apostle Paul who, beginning with the Epistle to the Galatians, seems always to have that preoccupation in at least the back of his mind. Prophets, apostles, pastors - they all have their credentials challenged from time to time.
In his own apologia Amos compares himself to a lion, which roars from instinct in certain situations. He can't help it. When it is time to roar, the lion roars (cf. 1:2). It is the same with the prophet. When it is time to roar, he can't help it. He roars, as though by instinct. And in the present time, Amos observes, there is plenty to roar about.
That point settled for the time being, the prophet returns to the attack, decrying the violence and oppression prevalent in Israel (verse 9), where a recent spate of prosperity has destroyed the people's moral sense 9verrse 10).
From his experience as a shepherd (1:1), Amos knows about finding the body remnants of sheep devoured by wild beasts. This, he says, is an image of what will be left of Israel after the departure of the invader who is to come. His prophecy was fulfilled scarcely a generation later, when Israel fell to the Assyrian in 722.
Amos finishes this chapter with references to the luxurious lifestyle of Israelites that own more than one home, all extravagantly adorned (verse 15). His testimony on this point is amply illustrated and proved by the modern archeology on the sites of Israelite cities of the period.
Saturday, December 31
Amos 4: Continuing his theme on the life of the pampered, Amos turns next to idle wives of wealthy Israelites, whom he rather harshly compares to well fed cattle. (These comments arouse a suspicion that Amos was rarely invited to soirees and other get-togethers in these ladies' homes. There is reason to believe that John the Baptist later had the same experience.)
It is particularly curious that Amos here mentions alcoholism as characteristic of this set. In this respect he sounds fairly contemporary to our own times, when alcoholism and drug addiction are commonly associated with wealthy, indolent women.
Naming the cities where it takes place, Amos next condemns the hypocritical worship of those that live for themselves and use worship in order to salve their dirt consciences (verses 4-5). We know that he preached these sermons at those very shrines (7:10-17), causing consternation among the worshippers. (These latter were also slow to invite Amos to visit their homes after the service.) We know that Isaiah, at about the same time, was making identical remarks about the worshippers further south (Isaiah 1:10-15).
On occasion the Lord has attempted, hitherto, to chasten and instruct His people by sending various trials upon them, all to no avail (verses 6-11). Five times in these verses Amos speaks of the people's failure to ˝return.ţ Each opportunity missed, of course, renders future repentance more unlikely, and Israel is about to run out of further chances. Although God's mercy has no limits, His patience does.
In considering these afflictions described by Amos, it is instructive to recall that these climatic and environmental conditions rose easily in the mind of a rural man (7:14), who knew by experience the truly precarious state of human survival. A delayed rain, an especially fertile year of locusts or caterpillars, and many a farmer has watched his crop wither or be devoured in an afternoon, destroyed while he stood watching, unable to do anything about it.
Let the prosperous cities of Israel remember, then, the lot of Sodom and the fate of Gomorrah (verse 11), overthrown in an hour and gone forever. Amos here may have an earthquake in mind (cf. 1:1).
In the ministry of Amos, then, the Lord mercifully offers Israel one last chance to repent (verse 12).
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