March 30 – April 6, 2018

Good Friday, March 30

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Jesus is tried before two different tribunals: a Jewish trial by the Sanhedrin, an a Roman trial before Pilate. Matthew joins the first of these to the denials by Peter, and the second to the suicide of Judas.

Matthew’s double construction accomplishes two things: First, it varies the narrative by alternating stages: the story begins with Jesus, goes to Peter, comes back to Jesus, goes to Judas, and finally returns to Jesus once again.

Second, because Matthew joins a specific disciple to each of Jesus’ interrogations, he indicates the dimension of discipleship in the Passion narrative. Thus, the drama of the Cross is not isolated from the trial and trauma of the soul. That is to say, what transpires in the salvation wrought by God in Jesus finds a resonating correspondence in the human struggle of failure and repentance, treachery and despair. The ironic tragedy of the Cross is reflected in the inner battle of the disciple’s soul.

Third, Matthew’s narrative construction encourages the reader to contrast Peter and Judas as two types of response to sin and redemption. In fact, Christians over the centuries have followed Matthew’s encouragement in this respect.

Pontius Pilate, now appearing for the first time in Matthew, is identified by his title of hegemon, meaning governor, procurator, or prefect (27:2). Pilate held this office from A.D. 26 to 36. Residing and ruling at Caesarea, he was currently in Jerusalem to help keep order in the city during the Passover, when much larger crowds sometimes occasioned disturbances.

Jesus’ enemies “hand Him over” (paredokan) to this Gentile ruler, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus (20:19). This manumission was necessary, because the Roman government reserved the death penalty specifically to its own authority (John 18:31).

In handing Jesus over to the authority of the Gentiles, the Jewish leaders were explicitly rejecting Jesus and His messianic claims. In due course, Matthew will explain that the Jewish people as such, represented in the crowd that gathered before Pilate, consents to that rejection (27:25). That action in Pilate’s presence was a decisive turning point in salvation history. It represented what St. Paul described as the cutting off of branches from the ancient tree of Israel (Romans 11:16-24).

Even from a secular view of Jewish history, moreover, that repudiation of Jesus was decisive. From that hour, the history of the Jewish people took a different and profoundly altered direction. Even though theology insists that the Jews have never ceased to be God’s people (Romans 9:11), the historical condition of their calling was changed beyond anything imaginable prior to that time. Within the space of a few years the Jews lost their temple and the worship associated with that temple. That loss, which would have bewildered all the prophets and sages of the Hebrew Bible, has now lasted almost two millennia.

The altered state of the Jewish religion became a major theological problem for the early Christians, who saw in it a fulfillment of the sixth chapter of Isaiah. That problem prompted St. Paul to regard the structure of salvation history as dialectical, as we see in Romans 9—11.

Holy Saturday, March 31

Matthew 27:62-66: Long before the medieval theories of soteriology, Christian art and hymnography described our Lord’s descent into hell as a sort of “surprise attack” on the realm of death. According to this imagery, the soul of Christ descended into the netherworld, even as His body was placed in the tomb, but neither place was able to hold Him.

According to the prophet David, Christ was victorious over death in both the grave and in hell: “For You will not leave my soul in hell, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Psalm 16 [15]:10). In the Church’s first sermon, the Apostle Peter commented on this text: “His soul was not left in hell, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32).

There was no way for the realm of death to prepare for the dramatic appearance of Jesus, whom it was unable to hold. Death had swallowed what it could not digest. St. John Chrysostom proclaimed it best: “The Savior’s death has set us free. ? He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh . . .. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth and encountered Heaven.”

A special foreshadowing of that event in the nether world, surely, was the power of the Ark of the Covenant, when the apparently victorious Philistines rashly seized it. They first conveyed the captured Ark, we recall, to the temple of their own god, Dagon, as a trophy of combat. The trouble began right away: After the first night, Dagon was found lying prone before the Ark; after the second night, he was reduced to a stump (1 Samuel 5:3-4).

The Lord of the Ark, having disposed of the Philistine god, then dealt with the Philistines, wreaking havoc in three cities of their pentapolis (5:8-12). The reader is reminded of the plagues visited on Egypt—both animal pests (Exodus 7:26—8:27; 10:1-15) and bodily affliction (Exodus 9:8-12), including death (Exodus 12:29-36).

As the Ark was moved from city to city, Philistine panic intensified; its mere arrival at Ekron was sufficient to cause consternation, prior to any actual damage! In these descriptions, the biblical author is enjoying himself immensely. It is important to read this story as undiluted comedy.

Historians have variously identified the Philistine pestilence, the most severe suggestion being bubonic plague. Although that interpretation would account for the rodents and the physical symptoms (buboes or glandular swellings), we should not permit a preoccupation with medical diagnosis to obscure the author’s literary and rhetorical intention—to portray the affliction in terms of extreme discomfort and even embarrassment. The King James Version, sensing this intention, identified the swellings as hemorrhoids. That is to say, the emphasis in this account is on anal distress. Our earliest commentator on the story, Josephus (Antiquities 6.1.3), believed that death came from “dysentery.” (We shall forego his description!)

The theological message of this account rests on the biblical theme of victory arising out of defeat. The Philistines had barely time to celebrate their supposed triumph when they began to suspect their mistake: They had swallowed what they could not digest. The tables were turned. Instead of the Ark paraded as the spoils of victory, its transport became the Lord’s own triumphant march through the land of the enemy. The Philistines began to know how ancient Pharaoh felt, when the full force of the ten plagues made him eager for Israel to leave Egypt.

The comedic intent of this narrative should be carried over, I believe, to the later event it foreshadowed: the Lord’s descent into the realm of death. Certain elements in modern theology tend to portray as tragedy the creedal line that affirms, “He descended into hell.” Some contemporary authors interpret that line in the darkest terms, as though Jesus, in descending into hell, experienced the essence of damnation: Radical abandonment by the Father.
Modern speculation on the psychological experience of Jesus, however, should not cause us to forget that the Church has traditionally regarded the descent into hell in terms, not of tragedy, but of comedy—even ridicule. Hell, said Chrysostom, “was embittered, for it was mocked.”

Easter Sunday, April 1

John 20:11-23: Mary Magdalene, like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1–4), rises early while it is still dark and goes out seeking Him whom her soul loves, the one whom she calls “my Lord.” In an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden of His burial (19:41). Indeed, she first takes Him to be the gardener, which, as the new Adam, He most
certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know Him.

He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognize His voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: “Mary.” Only then does she know Him as “Rabbouni,” “my Teacher.”

In this story, then, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an “in-house” memory of the Church; it can
only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.

Ezekiel 1: The Book of Ezekiel is constructed of four parts: (1) Chapters 1-24, which contain stories, visions, and prophecies in which God judges sinful Israel. These are to be dated prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. (2) Chapters 25-32, in which divine judgment is pronounced against the other sinful nations of the same period. (3) Chapters 33-39, which contain prophecies given after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. These prophecies are related to Israel’s eventual deliverance and restoration. (4) Chapters 40-48, which contain Ezekiel’s visions of the new temple to be built in Jerusalem.

Chapter 1 describes Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet. In the second half of summer Ezekiel received his inaugural call by the banks of the Kabari Canal, a man-made waterway that flowed out of the Euphrates, through the city of Babylon, and then back to its mother river. This “fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiakin” is calculated to be the period between April 30 of the year 593 and April 18, of the year 592. The “fifth day of the fourth month” of this year was August 4, 593.

Like the inaugural callings of Moses (Exodus 3:1-4) and Isaiah (6:1-6), the calling of Ezekiel is glorious and visionary. Above the “four living creatures,” who support the vault of heaven, he sees “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” God’s glory, because it fills all of heaven and earth, can be revealed anywhere, whether in a burning bush in the Sinai Peninsula, or in the temple at Jerusalem, or, as now, by the banks of a waterway in Babylonia.

Monday, April 2

Matthew 28:1-15: Among the figures with whom Christians gather round the empty Tomb in paschal season, there is a special prominence pertaining to the
Myrrhbearers, those women disciples who shouldered their newly purchased
spices and came to anoint the body of Jesus. They formed the first “women’s guild” of the Church, one might say, and they had just done duty a couple of days earlier at the foot of the Cross.

Excluded from the public “official list” of the Resurrection eyewitnesses (preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8), these women are nonetheless featured with distinction in the narratives of Pascha morning in all four canonical
Gospels. Only a few of them we know by name: Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary” (manifestly a kinswoman of the Mother of Jesus, because she is “the mother of James and Joses”—Matthew 27:56; 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10), Salome (Zebedee’s wife), Joanna.

Ezekiel 2: After his inaugural vision in Chapter 1, Ezekiel now formally receives his call in Chapter 2. The Spirit (in Hebrew Ruach), of which Ezekiel spoke in 1:4 (where the same Hebrew word is usually translated as “Wind”), now enters into him, causing him to stand up. This is the same Ruach that will enliven the dry bones in Chapter 37.

It will be another six years before Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the exiles, to whom he is sent to preach, are rebellious. Ezekiel is exhorted not to be impressed by them, nor necessarily to expect positive fruits from his preaching. In terms very reminiscent of the calls of Moses and Jeremiah, Ezekiel is instructed to continue preaching to his contemporaries, no matter how they receive his word. It is God’s word, after all, that he will speak.

Toward the end of this chapter he will be handed a scroll of God’s word, which he is instructed to eat. This is one of several places in Holy Scripture where God’s Word is likened to food.

This image also indicates the prophet is to assimilate God’s Word and to preach it from within the digestive processes of his own mind and heart. It is always the word of man as well as the Word of God. According to Christian theology God speaks to man through the inner creative workings of his mind and heart. In that inspiration by which God caused the Holy Scriptures to be written, man himself was a co-worker with God, a synergos. God’s word is likewise, then, the word of some human being who is properly called an “author.”

Tuesday, April 3

Luke 24:13-35: It may be said that the conversation of the risen Christ, as He walked with Cleopas and his unnamed companion and interpreted the Holy Scriptures for them, was the Church’s first formal course in the proper Christian interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. From time to time, as we know, Jesus had interpreted individual passages of Moses, Isaiah, David, and other Old
Testament writers, normally in reference to Himself. In that discourse on the road to Emmaus, however, Jesus devoted the entire effort and time to this theme, laying the foundation for the proper Christian understanding of the Bible. It may be said that all orthodox Christian exegesis goes back to that conversation, and we are surely correct in going to the writers of the New Testament as illustrating the interpretive patterns put forward in that conversation.

Ezekiel 3: The point of eating the scroll was that the prophet should internalize God’s message, assimilating it into his own being, so that he could speak God’s word as his own (cf. Revelation 10:8-11). It remains one of the great images of prophetic inspiration: “All my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart.”

Thus, we believe that the teaching of the Pentateuch is not simply the word of God, but also the word of Moses. We contend that God spoke to Moses through divine inspiration, a Spirit-breathed process that included the thinking and imaginative powers of . . . Moses. Biblical Inspiration means that God’s word was filtered through—digested by—fermented in—the mind and heart of a human author.

Revelation comes to us, accordingly, through the inner anguish of Jeremiah, the soaring minds of John and Isaiah, the probing questions of Job and Habakkuk, the near despair of Qoheleth, the structured poetry of David, the disappointments of Jonah, the struggles of Nehemiah, the mystic raptures of Ezekiel, the slow, patient scholarship of Ezra, the careful narrative style of Mark, the historical investigations of Luke, and that pounding mill, the ponderous thinking of Paul.

God’s Word finds expression in inspired literature, because it first assumed flesh in human thought and imagination. This truth is indicated in that vision where Ezekiel sees God’s word on a scroll that he must eat. That is to say, God’s word always comes to us in a fermented, pre-digested form.

This great vision is then followed by seven days of reflection (verses 15-16), at the end of which Ezekiel is made aware of his new vocation as a watchman for God’s people. Whether they heed him or not, the watchman has a divinely commissioned responsibility to give proper warning. This theme will return in Chapter 33.

Wednesday, April 4

1 Corinthians 15:12-19: What the Corinthian skeptics contested was not a belief in an afterlife, but the physical cosmology implicitly contained in the thesis, “the God of our fathers raised up Jesus” (Acts 5:30). They were unable to grasp that the Gospel proclaimed this truth as a vindication of the whole created order. Holy Scripture, after all, had not declared, “God approved of all the spiritual things He had made,” but, “God saw everything (kol) that He had formed, and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).

It was in refuting the skeptics at Corinth that the Apostle Paul came to understand the Resurrection of Christ as God’s historical act for the purpose of rectifying the evils inflicted on the created order by Adam’s Fall. The Resurrection had to be physical, because death and corruption were physical.

Although it was a single event in history, the “logic” of the Resurrection implied that the whole physical world, starting with the bodies of Christians, was destined for restoration and transformation through the risen and glorified flesh of Christ. This meant that the true and ultimate afterlife anticipated by Christians was not based on the immortality of the soul, but on the resurrection of the body.

In answering the Corinthian skepticism, Paul established the “logic” of the Resurrection in a chain of short hypothetical syllogisms. Within 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the word “if” appears nine times, leading to the final inference, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”

Ezekiel 4: Here begins a sequence of symbolic actions that Ezekiel is commanded to perform, as though in pantomime, to serve as efficacious signs to his brethren in the Captivity. These actions function as prophecies too, prophecies conveyed in sign language as it were. These prophetic actions have their counterparts elsewhere in Holy Scripture, such as the symbolic names that Hosea and Isaiah gave their children, and Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree.

The first of Ezekiel’s signs, a sort of symbolic enactment of the siege of Jerusalem, involves the prophet playing like a child with building blocks, placing the various pieces into an elaborate scene, accompanied by a narrative. Children do this kind of game all the time. A solitary child, indeed, may spend hours at it, telling himself the story as he moves the little pieces around.

The second action, more abstract, symbolizes the punishment of Israel and Judah, the former destroyed in 722 and the latter to be destroyed in the near future.

The prophet’s third action portrays the suffering of the siege about to come upon Jerusalem. Most significant to this prophetic priest is the ritual uncleanness that must accompany the preparation of the food and the circumstances of the people’s defeat. In the few words that Ezekiel himself speaks in this chapter, we observe the intense emotional pain felt by the prophet in the enactment of these symbolic gestures.

Thursday, April 5

1 Corinthians 15:20-34: Paul, moving from apologetics to theology, and he the transition with a formal “now”: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).

To speak theologically means to address truth through the categories, the images, the questions, and the declarations of Holy Scripture. The Resurrection of Christ was not just a bare fact. It was a theological revelation. It happened “according to the Scriptures.” Because this was so, Paul consulted Holy Scripture, in order to grasp what the Resurrection meant.

It is most significant that the first Scripture he consulted on this matter was Genesis. Whereas St. Peter consulted the Book of Psalms for this purpose (Acts 2:24-36), Paul went back to one of the earliest episodes of biblical history, the account of the Fall: “For since death came through a man, through a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

When the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as risen, however, they did not mean that he had somehow survived in a spiritual state after his death on the Cross. They meant, quite plainly, “he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). It was an event, not a static condition.

Had this not been the case, the Resurrection of Jesus would not have happened according to the Scriptures. The Resurrection-hope held out by Holy Scripture had to do with the body. When Isaiah prophesied, “Your dead shall live,” he went on to specify, “their corpses will arise” (Isaiah 26:19).

Ezekiel 5: This chapter begins with the fourth symbolic action imposed on Ezekiel, which signifies the various fates awaiting the citizens of Jerusalem as the siege nears its end. It is clear that only a tiny remnant of them will survive. The rest of the chapter is a stirring oracle explaining why so severe a judgment is falling on Jerusalem. It will be so grievous, the Lord says, because He expected so much more of the city that He had chosen as His dwelling place on earth.

Ezekiel, as a priest charged to minister in the temple, was deeply acquainted with the sacred worship that made Jerusalem so special. This elect place of God’s presence and His proper worship have been particularly defiled by the idolatry of the populace (5:11). Whereas Jeremiah (7:1-15) had already warned the people of Jerusalem that they would not be saved by their mere possession of the temple, Ezekiel now instructs them that this possession will render their punishment all the more severe. God expects more from the one to whom He has given more, but the chosen Jerusalem has offended Him even worse than the nations that He did not choose.

Friday, April 6

1 Corinthians 15:35-49: The use of adam as the proper name of the
original man (Gen. 4:25; 5:1–5; 1 Chr. 1:1) indicates that the whole human race was embodied and signified in his person. Adam was humanity in its wholeness.

For this reason, the disobedience of Adam was in truth the Fall of the human race as such. When humanity fell, it fell head first. Human nature and human history, transmitted from the person and flesh of that first father, were heavily burdened with the heritage of death, rebellion, and alienation from God, and bondage to demons. We all fell in Adam. We absolutely needed a new beginning. The entire Old Testament is a sort of cry for God to make it happen.

Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 has to do with the quality of created matter, the “dust” of Genesis 2—3. Paul’s case here is largely centered on Adam’s legacy of death and corruption, to which the apostle contrasts the immortality of the body through the Resurrection of Christ. Adam was formed of dust, to which he returned. Because of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, nonetheless, this inheritance of corruption from Adam is not the final word about the human prospect, says Paul. Although humanity certainly shares in Adam’s corruption, in Christ it is made to share in the incorruption of the Resurrection: “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption” (15:42). Thus, “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (15:49).

Ezekiel 6: The prophet, standing in Babylon, faces westward, the direction of Israel, to pronounce this oracle of doom. The threefold destruction predicted here (sword, famine, and pestilence) stands parallel to the three portions of Ezekiel’s shaved hair and beard in the previous chapter, as does the prophecy of a remnant that will be delivered.

Whereas in chapter 5 Ezekiel addresses Jerusalem, in the present chapter he addresses the rural areas of Israel, the hills and valleys. The immediate listeners to this oracle, however, are those Israelites who have already been brought to captivity in Babylon. It is they who must take warning, for they will soon see God’s judgment on idolatry.

Idolatry—the worship of whatever is not the true God—is the root sin against which all the Lord’s interventions in history are directed. Since idolatry always involves human bondage, the Lord’s interventions are directed to deliverance from bondage. The Exodus itself set Israel free from the gods of Egypt.

Idolatry is the sin that is about to bring about the destruction of Judah, says Ezekiel, as well as Israel not so long before; idolatry is the reason that the masses of their population were carried into exile. Indeed, idolatry is itself a form of exile, an alienation from the true God.