December 20 – December 27, 2019

Friday, December 20

Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme, warfare (verses 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.

One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings ruling over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788.

The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.

The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.

The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say more about this battle scene in Ezekiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.

Saturday, December 21

Luke 1.1-25: It is not a hard task to demonstrate that that the earliest apostolic preaching was based on a defined narrative structure, which invariably began with the ministry of John the Baptist. It contained nothing pertinent to the Lord’s conception, birth, and childhood. As far as we can tell, no one had ever preached on such material.

Therefore, just where did Matthew and Luke obtain the narrative material that fills the first two chapters of each Gospel? What source was available to them?

The only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is Jesus’ own mother, of whom we are told, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,51). Luke is obviously disclosing his source here. Mary alone was still alive to remember, years later, those details no longer known to anyone else. She is surely the living witness of the precious stories about herself and Joseph, the conception and birth of John the Baptist, her own virginal conception, the manger in the stable, the swaddling clothes, the angels and the shepherds, the Magi and their gifts, the Lord’s circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and the dramatic event that occurred when Jesus was twelve years old.

Matthew and Luke differ greatly between themselves with respect to details and their diverse literary and theological interests, but they tell essentially the same story, and it was a story they could have learned from only one source.

Consequently, to read their Christmas stories even today is to enter into a mother’s contemplative heart where those stories were preserved until they were written down in the Gospels under the inerrant guidance of the Holy Spirit. Holy Church, in order to proclaim this earlier part of Jesus’ life, draws us into the immaculate heart of Mary, to share in her inner faith and contemplative vigilance, to understand Christmas as she understood it.

Early tradition places the final days of the Mother of Jesus at the city of Ephesus, where the local church had earlier been founded by Paul and his companions. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine one of that mission team, Luke, making many trips to Ephesus and interviewing the Mother of Jesus. So, in today’s story, we trust the memory of Mary, who tells Luke the story of Zachary, as she heard it, many years earlier, from Zachary’s wife (and Mary’s cousin), Elizabeth. Elizabeth could have known it only from Zachary himself. We keep this fact in mind as we reflect that Zachary does not look very good in this account.

Sunday, December 22

Luke 1.39-56: “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” moreover, is a favorite expression of
Luke, which he uses to describe Zacharias (Luke 1:67), Peter (Acts 4:8), Paul (9:17; 13:9, 52), Barnabas (11:24), and even the entire congregation at Jerusalem (Acts 4:31). This expression is especially prominent with respect to Stephen, who is several times described this way (Acts 6:3, 5, 10; 7:55).

Luke’s earliest and arguably most significant use of this expression refers to John the Baptist, of whom Gabriel tells Zacharias: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Furthermore, Elizabeth will credit this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).

And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit.
This point is emphatic.

The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, eulogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68).

Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).

Monday, December 23

Luke 1.57-66: We have it on the authority of Jesus himself that “among those born of women none is greater than John.” In today’s reading, John appears “among those born of women.”

From the very beginning, it seems, John was never shaky about who he was. The lines of his identity were firmly in place: he had what the Greeks called “character.” He was severely tried over the course of his life, but he seems never to have had an identity crisis. He appears in the Gospels as a man of unusual self-confidence—enough self-confidence to call his whole generation to repentance! He was not afraid of the religious authorities in Judaism, and he was not the least intimidated by the political authorities that would eventually take his life.

He held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for his beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a humble man. Knowing quite clearly who he was, he was equally clear about who he wasn’t. In fact, John was much queried on this point: “Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed: ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him: ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Because he devoted his life to the service of God, it was obvious to John that he was not God. Knowing who he was, and being faithful to who he was, John did not try to be somebody else. Of his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, John said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

Because he knew the identity of the Christ, and, indeed, he identified Christ to his contemporaries, John did not think of himself as very important. That is to say, he was a humble man. And in John’s case we perceive that humility has nothing to do with self-doubt or a lack of self-assurance. His humility came from his relation to Christ; it was not some sort of psychological game that he played with himself.

For this reason, John continued to grow, as the Evangelist Luke wrote of him. He increased in character as he grew in humility

Tuesday, December 24

Matthew 1:1-17: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”

This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonia Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.

Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).

If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.

One of the most striking features of this genealogy is indicated in verse 16. After fifteen verses tracing what one would naturally think to be the biological lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (very much like the various genealogies in the Old Testament), we suddenly learn that it is nothing of the sort. We are minutely instructed with respect to the biological lineage of Joseph, only to be informed that there existed no biological link between Joseph and Jesus! There is a great irony in this legal—as distinct from biological—lineage. Supremely the Heir to God’s covenants with Abraham and David, Jesus is in no way dependent upon them. On the contrary, the final significance of Abraham and David is derived entirely from their relationship to Jesus.

Wednesday, December 25

Hebrews 2.1-18: In this reading, we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.

According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.

The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.

This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, when God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”

According to this perspective, Christ is no divine afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of St Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”

According to this interpretation of Psalm 8, “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” That is to say, God’s Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh, and this is how the human race was redeemed.

Thursday, December 26

Matthew 1.18-25: In today’s reading Joseph receives two commands that affect his legal relationship to Jesus: “Take to you Mary your wife” and “You shall call His name Jesus.” In fulfilling these commands, Joseph establishes the legal relationship of King David to Jesus. It is for this reason that Joseph is here addressed as “Joseph, son of David”; this is the only instance in the New Testament where “son of David” refers to someone besides Jesus. Two other features of this text should be noted: First, the name Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us,” ties this passage to the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s promise to be with us always. Second, the expression “that it might be fulfilled,” which here appears for the first of the eleven times that it is found in Matthew, more than in all of the other three Gospels combined.

In these verses we get our introduction to Joseph, a man of self-effacing and silent service. We know at least a few words spoken by Jesus’ mother, including a whole poem. Of Joseph, her husband, there are no recorded words. At no time does he ever draw attention to himself. He was not an apostle, nor a prophet, nor a preacher, nor an evangelist.

Joseph was a direct descendant of David and Solomon; through his veins coursed the blood of Hezekiah and Josiah. But Joseph was not a king; he was a laboring man. When Jesus first addressed the citizens of Nazareth, those in the synagogue inquired, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22).

Matthew provides an instructive variation on this question: “Is this not the craftsman’s son?” (Matthew 13:55). The underlying Greek noun here, usually translated as “carpenter,” is tekton, a term including any sort of builder, craftsman, or skilled worker—even a blacksmith. A tekton was someone who constructs and fashions things with his hands.

A tekton is not a “man of ideas.” Rather, he is a man of things. He takes things “in hand’ and does something with them. In her portrayal of Adam Bede, George Eliot speaks of “the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modeling hand.”

A tekton is a practical artist, very much engaged in practical life. He does not make things to be looked at or to be listened to. He makes things to use: houses to live in, tables and chairs for sitting, door frames to pass through, axes to cut down trees, plowshares with which to cultivate the earth.

Such men are customarily silent men. Their labor requires discipline and steady concentration. Thus, there are no recorded words of Joseph.

Friday, December 27

Revelation 20.1-10: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. In order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to John. In the Judaism of John’s time there was the popular belief that the Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more recently, in Hitler’s fantasy of a “thousand-year Reich”). This popular belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who live a thousand generations.

John’s scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is portrayed as a very old man, the “Ancient of Days,” who would take the authority from the fourth beast and give it to God’s holy ones, those who are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14).

We note that Daniel 7 speaks of “thrones” in the plural, which Christians understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah (Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To say that the believers will judge does not mean, of course, that they will judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the depths of the human heart.

Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history’s end, will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of history.

This, then, is their thousand years’ reign. It is that area of Christian experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of them the battle with Gog and Magog.