December 26 – January 2

Friday, December 26

Matthew 2:1-15: There is an important parallelism between the Christmas story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles’ being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.

There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however, for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18[19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star-watchers. “For we have seen His star in the East,” they affirm, “and have come to worship [or adore] Him” (Matthew 2:2).

Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto
Bethlehem, that “house of the Bread” (for such is the meaning of
“Bethlehem”), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.

This adoration takes place within the “house,” which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him” (Matthew 2:11).

That is to say, when the Magi entered the house, they found what we all find portrayed on a central icon up near the altar, the mother holding and presenting the Child for the adoration of those who have followed the star into the house of the Bread.

For this reason, it was entirely proper that the Apostles, as they were being commissioned for the great work of universal evangelism, should manifest in their very posture the Christward adoration which is the final goal of that evangelism (Matthew 28:9).

Finally, while the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that declare the glory of God, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

Saturday, December 27

John 1:1-18: Commonly known as the Johannine “prologue,” these introductory verses should better be called an “overture” to John’s Gospel, inasmuch as we find in it the chief theological themes that the evangelist will develop in the coming narrative.

Some students of the text have suggested, in fact, that the bulk of these verses formed an early Christian hymn, and that John’s account amounts to a narrative interpretation of that hymn. Notwithstanding the attractiveness of this suggestion, it must be said that these verses are not written in a style different from this gospel as a whole. That is to say, they are written in a rhythmic, meditative prose, a style common throughout John.

The opening words are clearly intended to evoke the beginning of Genesis, thus indicating that God’s preexistent and eternal Word is the active principle of Creation: The very first time God said something in Creation, He was speaking through the divine and personal Word who abode with Him from all eternity. John shares this vision with other sources in the New Testament, most obviously Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4. All three of these sources place this theological reflection near the beginning of their composition.

John the Baptist is the first of many “witnesses” of which the Fourth Gospel speaks: the woman of Samaria (4:39), the works of Jesus (5:36), the Scriptures (5:39), the crowds (12:17), the Holy Spirit and the disciples (15:26-27), the writer himself (21:24), and especially the Father (5:37). Here, then, John introduces a major motif of this gospel.

John 1:19-28: The first delegation sent to John comes from the priestly family (verses 19-23). This line of questioning has to do with John’s identity: Is he the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 19? John answers “no” to each question. John’s reiterated denial may be contrasted with Jesus’ own use of the words “I AM” all through this Gospel. This continues the contrast between Jesus and John, begun with the assertion regarding John, “He was not that light, but in order to bear witness to that light.”

Of these three negations by John the Baptist, the first is the most important: “I am not the Messiah.” He also denies being Elijah, the prophet expected to return in immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah (cf. Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:4-12; Luke 1:17). Although John the Baptist did not regard himself as the Prophet Elijah, Jesus regarded him in the light of those prophecies of Elijah’s return (cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:12).

John also denies being the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15,18 (cf. Acts 7:37). According to this Gospel, there were those who suspected that Jesus Himself was that Prophet foretold by Moses (6:14; 7:40).

Finally, when John is asked point-blank, “Who are you?” he responds by quoting Isaiah 40:3—“The voice of someone crying in the wilderness:
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s understanding of himself in the light of this Isaian text is found in the Synoptic Traditions as well (cf. Matthew 3:3).

Sunday, December 28

Psalm 2: A king of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One. Well he should, for there can be no compromise nor compatibility between the wisdom and power of this world and the wisdom and power of God. They are at deep enmity (cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–14), and the second psalm is concerned with this historical conflict. Psalm 2 is a Christological interpretation of history.

Psalm 1 had spoken of the “counsel of the godless,” and now Psalm 2 will go on to describe that counsel: “The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered in counsel, against the Lord and against his anointed (“Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek).” The counsel of this world will not endure the reign of God and Christ. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” they say.

The early Christians knew the meaning of these words, and they included them in one of their earliest recorded prayers:

Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.

And about whom are these things being said? The prayer goes on:

For truly against Your holy Servant [pais, also meaning ‘servant’ or ‘boy’] Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together (Acts 4:24–27).

The context of this prayer was the persecution of the Church by the authorities at Jerusalem (cf. all of Acts 3—4). That is to say, the psalm’s meaning, to those Christians, was not something in the distant past; it was something contemporary to ongoing Christian history.

This psalm is not impressed by all the sinful revolution against the reign of God and his Christ. Like the first psalm, Psalm 2 finishes on the theme of the divine judgment, which blesses the just and condemns the wicked. Both psalms end much like the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge.”

Indeed, the parallels of Psalm 2 with the “last days” described in the Bible’s final book, Revelation, are quite remarkable: the anger of the nations and the wrath of God (Rev. 11:18), the political conspiracy against God (19:19), the Messiah’s “rod of iron” inflicted on His enemies (2:27; 12:5; 19:15).

God, meanwhile, may laugh at His enemies: “He that thrones in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord will hold them in derision.” His Chosen One and Heir is already anointed. In the verse that explains the Church’s partiality to this psalm at Christmas time, the Messiah proclaims: “The Lord said unto Me: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten You.” These words, partly reflected at the Lord’s Baptism (Matt. 3:17) and Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17), came to express the essential Christological faith of the Church. This verse is cited explicitly in the apostolic preaching (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; also 1 John 5:9) and directly answers the major question posed by Christian evangelism in every age: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The (most likely) earliest of the Gospels thus commences: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

“This day,” God says, “today have I begotten You.” So early in the Book of Psalms is the Christian mind elevated to eternity, that undiminished “today” of Christ’s identity—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). No one knows the Father except the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matt. 11:27). That “blessed man” introduced in the first psalm is now proclaimed in the second psalm to be God’s only-begotten Son, the sole Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. His is the only name under heaven given men by which we may be saved. Therefore, “Be wise now, you kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. . . . Blessed are all that put their trust in Him.”

Monday, December 29

John 1:29-34: This Gospel text begins, “The next day. . .” This is the reason that it is text read every year on January 7, the day after the Lord’s Baptism. It contains John’s version of the preaching of John the Baptist.

Careful note should be made of the expression, “the next day,” because it is the first of several chronological remarks that mark the opening chapters of John. It means that the author is counting the days, and he tells us that we have now arrived at the second day of his story. In verse 35 we will arrive at the third day. In verse 43 we will arrive at the fourth day. In 2:1 we jump three days. That is to say, the author goes to considerable effort to describe what transpired over the course of a week.

In fact, through 1:19 to 2:11 is an account of the first week of the New Creation. This week will culminate in the first of Jesus’ “Signs,” the miracle of Cana in Galilee. This is consonant with the beginning of John’s Gospel, which, like the Book of Genesis, commences with the words “in the beginning.”

It is with the ministry of John the Baptist that the Fourth Gospel narrative starts. This is important, because the common tradition reflected in the NT regards John the Baptist as the most primitive Christian preacher. The Gospel begins with the preaching of John. That is to say, the earliest interpreter of Jesus, before any of the Apostles and Gospel-writers, was John the Baptist.

Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.

When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.

Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.

Tuesday, December 30

John 1:35-42: Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.

This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.

We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse 41) and “Kephas” (verse 42).

These things happened “about the tenth hour,” which would be bout 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The events in this next chapter took place the next day.

In verse 43 we arrive at “the next day” in our progress through this new week of a new Creation.

At this point it may be useful to stop and reflect on the characters that the evangelist has introduced so far. We can divide these into New Testament and Old Testament characters.

The New Testament characters are, first, John the Baptist, then Andrew and Simon Peter. In this present reading he will introduce Philip and Nathanael.

The only Old Testament character introduced so far has been Moses. Moses will also appear in the present reading, but the character of Jacob will also be introduced.

Wednesday, December 31

John 1:43-51: We arrive at “the next day” in our progress through this new week of a new Creation.

At this point it may be useful to stop and reflect on the characters that the evangelist has introduced so far. We can divide these into New Testament and Old Testament characters.

The New Testament characters are, first, John the Baptist, then Andrew and Simon Peter. In this present reading he will introduce Philip and Nathanael.

It is reasonable to surmise that the mention of Peter and Andrew in this section indicates they were the ones who introduced Jesus to Philip. In the traditional lists of the Apostles, Philip is normally named right after Andrew (cf. Mark 3:18), and we shall find them together later on (12:22). Although Philip is named in each of the Synoptic Gospels, these really say nothing specific about him. Not so in the Fourth Gospel. He appears significantly in both the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper, each time talking with Jesus.

We learn something about Philip from both of these encounters. When Philip is introduced in the present chapter, he becomes a link joining together the apostolic band. Like Andrew, he has a Greek name, which may be the reason that the “Greeks” approach him in chapter 12. It was not uncommon for Galileans to have Greek names.

In identifying Bethsaida as “the city of Andrew and Peter,” John evidently indicates the place of their birth. The Synoptic Gospels clearly testify that the brothers now lived in Capernaum.

The Nathanael introduced here is clearly Bartholomew. The name Nathanael, after all, never appears in the Synoptic Gospels, and the name Bartholomew never appears in John. His full name was “Nathanael, son of Tholmai,” Indeed, in the Syriac text he is known as Bar Tholmai. He is normally named after Philip in the list of the Apostles (Mark 3:18).

Philip testifies to Nathanael that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was written in the Law and the Prophets (verse 45). This is the first time John explicitly speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. This mention of Moses continues the attention given to him already in this chapter: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten—himself God—in the bosom of the Father, he has explained Him.”

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Genesis 1: In our regular recitation of the Creed that binds us together, we first declare our faith “in one God, the Father almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” The Church has always understood this declaration to refer to two aspects of God, God in eternity and God in time. From all eternity He is the Father; in the realm of time He is the Creator. It is this second aspect that I want to consider now. What does it mean that God is the Creator of “heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”?

We should reflect, first, that this is a revealed truth. Creation refers to a specific act that cannot be reached by the power of reason. Creation, as the Christian faith understands that term, means the passage from non-being to being. I do not know, nor can I know, by the ability of reason, that all things, visible and invisible, have passed from non-being to being.

My reason tells me, of course, that myself and the world around me have a rational source. The intelligent design that my reason beholds in the universe cannot possibly have come from a series of undirected accidents; my mind cries out that it is utterly irrational to imagine otherwise. Only a fool would affirm it. (In fact, the Bible uses the word “fool” when it mentions this possibility.)

Still, the intelligent design that I see in the world does not tell me that all things, visible and invisible, come from nothing. Science and philosophy have never breathed a word of it. Creation is a truth divinely revealed, which is why it is contained in the Creed. It is not the business of the Creed, after all, to affirm things that can be affirmed apart from the Creed.

How, then, do I know that all things have been created from nothing? To borrow a phrase, “this I know for the Bible tells me so.” Typical of the Christian conviction on this point, one may cite St. Hilary of Poitiers: “For all things, as the prophet says, were made out of nothing; it was no transformation of existing things, but the creation of non-being into a perfect form” (De Trinitate 4.16).

Who was this “prophet” cited by St. Hilary? In fact, it was a prophetess, because St. Hilary was quoting the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, who said to one of her tortured sons, “I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing, and mankind also” (2 Maccabees 7:28). This text from 2 Maccabees was the standard biblical proof text for the Christian Church in respect to creation from nothingness. We find the thesis in late Judaism, from which it passed into the Christian faith as an essential teaching.

But it is important to reflect that we believe it as revealed by God, and we have no access to that truth except through divine revelation. Creation is an absolutely unique act of the biblical God. Philosophy and science know nothing of it.

We affirm, “heaven and earth, and all things visible and invisible.” Not just earth, we understand, but heaven too. Not just the material world that we see, but also the invisible world that we cannot see. Not just the chemical substances of things, but also the mathematical theorems and physical laws that give them coherence. Everything that is not God has been created from nothingness, no matter how high, how metaphysical, how spiritual. Apart from God, there is absolutely nothing that was not made from nothing.

No part of creation, then, is an emanation of the divine being. Nothing of God’s essence has passed into what He has made. Not only is the human brain created from nothing, but also the spiritual human intellect that uses that brain; and not only the human intellect but also the rational principles by which that intellect functions. The very laws of logic have been created from nothing.

Friday, January 2

Genesis 2: There are two apparently irreconcilable aspects to the New Testament’s affirmation of Natural Revelation—the knowledge of God available in the data of the created world:

On the one hand, it is affirmed that man is able to discover God’s existence from examining His works in nature, because “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20). There is not a word in this text about faith. Indeed, how can one believe in what is “clearly seen”?

On the other hand, it is equally attested that “he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith, not reason, is affirmed here. However, if faith in God’s existence is necessary, how am I to have faith in what I already know? How is it possible to know and believe in the same thing?

Since both things are affirmed in Holy Scripture, however, one suspects what we have here is a mystery, not a just a philosophical dilemma.

Saint Bonaventure approaches this problem by concentrating on the special sense of “knowing” when this verb refers to God as an object. When a thinker arrives at the inference “God” at the end of a logical argument, he does not know God as he knows some other object of his rational perception. He does not perceive God as he perceives, for instance, the Principle of Non-Contradiction or the theorems of mathematics. God does not give form to his intellect in the same way that his intellect is informed by rational truths. God remains God and therefore inaccessible to the mind’s comprehension.

Bonaventure writes,

Someone who believes that God is one and is the Creator of all, if he should begin to know this same fact (ipsum idem) from arguments of rational necessity, does not for this reason stop believing; likewise, if someone should already know this, the arrival of faith does not remove the knowledge of it. Our experience testifies to this.

With regard to reason’s knowledge of God’s existence, Bonaventure says, “the light and certitude of this knowledge is not such that, having it, the light of faith is superfluous; indeed, it is necessary with it.” Therefore, he concludes that, in the case of God, knowing and believing “are compatible, simultaneously and in the same respect” (On the Sentences 3.24.2,3).