December 18 – December 25, 2015

Friday, December 18

Amos 7: Each of the next three chapters contains at least one “vision,” in which Amos perceives various dimensions of his own vocation and the divine judgment to which the Lord has summoned him to bear witness.

The first of these is a vision of locusts, one of man most threatening natural enemies (verses 1-3). In response to the intercessions of the prophet, this plague is canceled.

The second vision is the brush fire, another formidable enemy of man (verses 4-6). Once again the people are spared by God’s mercy at the intercession of Amos.

The third vision is the plumb line (verses 7-9), an instrument designed to determine “uprightness.” This tool is a metaphor for the standard of righteousness that will guide the divine judgment. Whereas the locusts and the brush fire were images of irrational destruction, the plumb line is the symbol of objective, detached assessment. Amos here does not pray. Plumb lines, like all instruments of measure, enjoy a dispassion and objectivity that are without remorse or personal feelings.

It appears that Amos has been sharing these visions with the folks gathered at the shrine Bethel, because now the apostate priest at that shrine complains to King Jeroboam II (786-746) about the prophet’s activities and his message (verses 10-11). This priest also reprimands Amos, telling him to head back south where he came from (verse 12-13). Amos suffers the usual accusation leveled by insecure governments—conspiracy.

By way of response the prophet tells of the rural circumstances and agricultural conditions of his calling (verses 14-15), adding a few choice words about what the accusing priest might expect in the near future (verses 16-17).

Revelation 19:11-21: Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.

Saturday, December 19

Amos 8: The prophet’s fourth vision is the basket of summer fruit (verses 1-3). The message associated with this vision, although perfectly clear to the first hearers of Amos, is a bit difficult to grasp without recourse to the original Hebrew. The summer fruit (qayis) suggests “ripeness” (haqes), the sense being “the end is nigh.” This is a reference to the imminence of “the day of the Lord.”

Greed and a worldly spirit have been the dominating sins of the people who suffer the accusations of Amos. They have kept all the proper religious and liturgical rules. They would not think of violating the prescribed days of rest, such as the weekly Sabbath and the monthly New Moon (Numbers 28:11-15; Colossians 2:16), but what good has come of it? It has simply provided them with more leisure to plot new ways of acquiring unjust gain! Their perfectly observed religious practices have had no beneficial influence on the quality of their hearts, which are still consumed with greed and the relentless acquisition of wealth at the expense of the needy and the weak (verses 4-6).

Amos describes the punishment destined for these offenders (verses 7-10). In this description Amos reminds his listeners of the awful darkness they had all beheld during the total eclipse of the sun over the Holy Land on June 15, 763 B.C.

Luke 1:1-25: The gravity of Zacharias’s doubt is rendered obvious if we consider it in contrast to Abraham’s response to an identical promise.
Both married to women beyond childbearing years, Abraham and Zacharias were each told that his wife would bear him a son. These sons would be “children of promise,” conceived by God’s special intervention. Zacharias very well knew the story of Abraham, but still he insisted, “How shall I know this?”

In punishment for such arrogance, Zacharias is struck speechless for the next nine months and eight days, thus given an opportunity to ponder the serious nature of his offense. He must repent. If he is to become a fit father for John the Baptist, than whom there is no one greater among those born of women (7:28), Zacharias has much to learn about the ways of God.

Sunday, December 20

Amos 9: The prophet’s final vision is the altar at which the Lord stands to commence the day of judgment (verses 1-6). This is apparently the altar in the shrine at Bethel. The burden of this message is that no one will escape the judgment of God, for the whole universe belongs to Him and no one can hide from His presence.

The closing verses introduce a reassessment of the very notion of Israel as God’s “chosen” people. Chosen for what? For privilege? Hardly. For responsibility, rather, at which the people have abjectly failed. It has become obvious to Amos that if God chose Israel, it was for reasons larger than Israel, which has so thoroughly repudiated the implications of His choice. The history of all nations, in fact, is under His sway, and the history of Israel fits into the larger designs of His heart.

For that reason the destruction of Samaria is not the end of God’s interest in the world. Judah yet remains (verse 8), and God has other purposes in mind in the sometimes violent sifting process of history (verse 9).

The Northern Kingdom was never party to an independent covenant. The house of David was, however, and the Lord will honor that covenant (verse 11). Christian readers correctly see in this proclamation the promise of the Messiah, in whom will converge all the developments of history.

Thus, the nations condemned in the opening two chapters of this book are blessed on its final page.

Luke 1:26-38: The Angel Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke, is sent to make two announcements—the first to the priest Zacharias in Jerusalem, and the other to the virgin Mary in Nazareth, both of whom are told that they will soon become the parents of children miraculously conceived. Now among the several points of resemblance between these two stories is the detail that both Zacharias and Mary, upon receiving this message, requested some sort of explanation from Gabriel.

It is at this point that the two accounts go in quite different directions. To Mary’s request Gabriel gives an adequate and very reassuring response, whereas Zacharias’s request is not only denied, but he is punished for even making it!

The difference between the two cases is not hard to discern. Zacharias’s question is a request, not for instruction, but for an explanation: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years” (1:18). To ask “How shall I know?” is an epistemological question. It does not convey a spirit of faith and obedience, but a spirit of doubt and skepticism.

Mary’s question, in contrast—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (1:24)—is actually a request for further instruction. Since she is a virgin, and Gabriel is telling her she is about to become a mother, Mary really does need more information. Her question to Gabriel means something like “Tell me what I am supposed to do.” There is no arrogance here, nor doubt.

Monday, December 21

Luke 1:39-56: To gain some sense of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary in today’s reading, one need only compare two scenes found close together in the First Book of Kings. In the first of those scenes, Bathsheba “bowed down and did homage” to her husband David (1:16); in the second, however, her son Solomon “rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand” (2:19).

Such regard for the queen mother was most conspicuous in the line of the covenanted Davidic kings, Solomon being the first. We observe that in the passion accounts Jesus is not called the “King of Israel,” but specifically “the King of the Jews.” It is the royal house of Judah that is envisaged. Now in all but two instances the Books of Kings explicitly name the mothers of the kings of Judah, in striking contrast to the uncovenanted kings of Israel. John’s simple reference to “the mother of Jesus,” then, evokes this ancient institution of Judah’s royalty. Mary takes her place as the last and greatest of the queen mothers of Judah. In Luke this evocation is conveyed by the expression “mother of my Lord” in 1:43.

Revelation 21:9-27: The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.

Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same root skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”

John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).

The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.

Tuesday, December 22

Luke 1:57-66: Our reading of Luke’s Gospel today, illumined by our reading of the last chapter of Malachi, brings us now to the birth of John the Baptist, about whom we should say that he was a distinctly cultured man. In fact, Luke says a great deal about the roots of culture. John was a Jewish priest by inheritance and blood. His mother was from the tribe of Levi, and of his father we read that he was a priest of “the division of Abijah.” He was the heir of a great spiritual legacy, and very early in life he began to assimilate that inheritance.

How early? According to Luke he was in his sixth month of gestation. Even at that age, however, he had already assimilated enough of his religious inheritance that he leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of the Son of God she carried.

That is to say, even three months before he was born, and without the slightest ability to reflect critically on his existence, he was already a believer. He already had faith, a faith proportionate to his age and condition. He was in possession of an infant’s faith, the only kind of faith of which he was capable. This is why, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised as a member of God’s people.

This infant faith has been essential to the history of the Christian Church, because it is a fact that the great majority of Christians did not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. We baptize the infant members of the Church for exactly the same reason that John the Baptist was circumcised eight days after his birth. That is to say, such children are already believers, just as John the Baptist was a believer.

In the case of John the Baptist, moreover, this faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.

Revelation 22:1-11: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river, twelve in number, obviously. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.

The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus (cf. John 4:7-15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8).

Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.

The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.

Wednesday, December 23

Psalm 72 (Greek & Latin 71): This psalm is often referred to as a “messianic” psalm, in the sense that it is concerned with God’s “anointed” king. Considering only the simplest reading of this psalm, it is difficult to escape the impression that it was composed for use at ceremonies of royal coronation, the ritual point of dynastic transition: “Grant Your justice to the king, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son.” The title added to this psalm does, in fact, ascribe it to Solomon, the first successor to the Davidic throne.

Two narrative sections of Holy Scripture readily come to mind in connection with the themes of Psalm 72. The first text is 2 Samuel 7, containing Nathan’s great prophecy about the royal house of David, which now became the beneficiary of a special covenant to guarantee that his descendants would reign forever over his kingdom. A number of lines of our psalm, especially those pertaining to the permanence and extension of David’s royal house, reflect that historical text.

The second pertinent passage is 1 Kings 3, which describes Solomon’s prayer for the “wise heart” that would enable him to govern God’s people justly. Repeatedly throughout this psalm mention is made of the justice and wisdom that would characterize God’s true anointed one.

Both aspects of Psalm 72, as well as the two narrative texts that it reflects, proved to be more than slightly problematic in Israel’s subsequent history. For example, Solomon’s vaunted wisdom as a ruler, that for which he had prayed at Gibeah, didn’t last even to the end of his own lifetime, and it was displayed among his posterity with (not to put too fine a point on it) a rather indifferent frequency. Similarly, what is to be said about the permanence of the reign of David’s household over God’s people? More than half of that kingdom broke away shortly after the death of David’s first successor, nor was any Davidic king ever again to reign on his throne after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 bc. What, then, could be said for either the prophecy of Nathan or the prayer of Solomon? How were the promises in this psalm to be understood?

The Archangel Gabriel announced the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies when he told the Mother of the Messiah that “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). Yet other angels announced to the shepherds that “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord” (2:11). He was to be at once David’s offspring and His Lord (cf. Mark 12:35–37).

Revelation 22:12-21: This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for them. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.

In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).

Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude—the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 are something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.

In referring to those “outside” the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called “excommunication,” which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. DidacheI 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1). One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them and us” mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.

Thursday, December 24

Psalm 89 (Greek & Latin 88):1-29: This psalm has to do with God’s activity in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and with His covenant and promise with respect to the house of David.

To appreciate how these realities are joined within the Christian mystery, we may begin with a text from St. Clement of Alexandria around the year 200. He wrote that

the ancient and catholic Church stands alone in essence and idea and principle and preeminence, gathering together, by the will of the one God, through the one Lord, into the unity of the one faith, built upon the appropriate covenants, or rather the one covenant given at different times, all those who are already enlisted in it, whom He foreordained, having known from the foundation of the world that they would be righteous” (Stromateis 7.17.107).

In sum, all of God’s dealings with this world are of whole cloth, including the grace of creation. All the historical covenants are expressions of the one covenant. From the beginning of time there has been only one God, one Lord, one faith.

The mystery of Christ was already present, then, when the voice of God called out into the aboriginal darkness of non-being, “Let there be light.” Christ is no afterthought in the divine plan; God has no relations with this world except in Christ. Even when the Father’s voice imposed form over the chaos of nonexistence, it was the form contained in His Word, who is His Son. God’s covenant with creation was the initial exercise in applied Christology.

This psalm, taking up first the theme of this divine imposition of form over chaos, emphasizes the structural constancy of the universe, but already this cosmic theme is introduced in a setting best described as messianic. That is to say, already anticipating the psalm’s other theme, the permanence of the Davidic throne is related to the unvarying dependability of the heavenly bodies, for both things are given shape by God’s holy word and sworn resolve: “For You declared: ‘Mercy shall be built up forever.’ Your truth is prepared in the heavens: ‘A covenant have I formed with my chosen ones; to David my servant I swore an oath: Forever will I provide for your seed; I shall establish your throne unto all generations.’ The heavens will confess Your wonders, O Lord, and Your truth in the church of Your saints.”

Now, as Christians, we know that God’s solemn promise to David, with respect to the everlasting stability of his throne, is fulfilled in the kingship of Christ, for the Son of David now sits forever enthroned at God’s right hand, executing both prophecy and promise. Only in Christ do we find the key to the mystery of this psalm: “Once I swore by My holiness, nor would I ever lie to David. His seed shall abide forever, and his throne as the sun in My sight, and like the moon forever established, a faithful witness in heaven.”

The theological bond, then, joining the creation to David, is Christ: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. . . . But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’ . . . And: ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands’” (Heb. 1:1, 2, 8, 10). The regal, messianic covenant of sonship is related to the fixed structure of the very world, because both realities are rooted in Christ. As font and inner form, He is their common warrant.

In fact, nonetheless, both things, God’s creation and His covenant, appear ever under threat throughout history, which theme brings us to the third part of our psalm. In this section we pray repeatedly for God’s vindication of the messianic covenant, which man in his rebellion endeavors ever to overthrow. Indeed, in our own times this struggle seems to have intensified and entered a new phase. After deism, rejecting God’s messianic covenant with us in Christ, strove to content us solely with the rational structure of creation, it was only a short time before creation itself came under siege. Now we live in a world where even the clearest manifestations of intelligent order are routinely dismissed as chaos, so grievously has the human spirit lost its use of reason.

Friday, December 25

The Birth of Our Lord: Why, then, did God become man? To join us to Himself: Union with God—theosis—is the full fruit of Redemption. God’s Son assumed our complete humanity in order to save and sanctify our complete humanity. In a poetic sense, God couldn’t help Himself; He loves us that much

Few themes, I suppose, are more pronounced in the teaching of Jesus than that of God’s invitation. Whether to a banquet or a wedding, Jesus sees man as invited by God.

I believe this divine invitation implies many considerations of anthropology, but I limit myself here to one: human dignity. God invites man for pretty much the same reason we send invitations to one another—friendship. Orthodox Christian theology has always insisted that his motive is friendship with man, philanthropia.

It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us loveable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find loveable in us?

Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away its paradox. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, had to do so, even though He finds nothing intrinsically loveable in us. It is taken for granted, in some Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but He does so because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.

Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself . . . . and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.

When the Church calls God the “lover of mankind,” She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive. Indeed, when God made man, He put into his composition a radical point of attraction that man is incapable of destroying.

This favorable and loving attitude of God toward human beings perhaps justifies our speaking of a divine anthropotropism. God shows every sign of being drawn to man. It is hard for us to fathom this. It is as though the sun felt for the sunflower the same powerful attraction the sunflower feels for the sun. We would have to imagine a solar antheotropism prompting the sun to rush its rising each morning for another glimpse of the jonquil, the iris and the buttercup.

Holy Scripture, however, says no less of God’s feelings for man. Numerous times Jeremiah, that most tenderhearted of poets, speaks of God “rising up early” to speak to the human soul (Jeremiah 7:13, 25; 11:7; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14,15; 44:4; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:15).

It is arguable, indeed, that Jeremiah was the prophet who best understood this aspect of God—and of man. It was in Israel’s supremely dark hour, the dreadful day of Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the First Temple, that this philanthropic God declared through the lips of Jeremiah, ” I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore have I drawn thee with mercy” (31:3). It is this everlasting love of God that summons humanity; it is His undying mercy that prompts the invitation He dispatches to human beings throughout the ages.

God loves us and desires us because He formed us in His own image, which is essential to, and inalienable from, the very definition of human nature. God’s love for us is His response to the attraction He has made intrinsic to our being. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God stop desiring us. Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.

The truth is that God is drawn to us by love, that He has forcefully thrown in His lot with us, to the point of becoming one of us. This act of God, His deliberate assumption of our historical experience in order to make it His own, is what theology calls Divine Revelation, and its defining manifestation is the Mystery of the Incarnation. In the person of His Son, God has united humanity to Himself by an indissoluble bond theology calls the Hypostatic Union. Human theotropism and divine anthropotropism are both fulfilled. Perhaps we make think of it as the mutual joy of the sunflower and the sun.