December 25 – January 1, 2020

Friday, December 25

Hebrews 2.1-14: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires His solidarity with the rest of the human race. This is the very meaning of Christmas, when God’s Son was sent to save us from our sins. He can do this only if he is one of us.

Such is the burden of this section of Hebrews, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren’ . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.

Before a priest can be a father, he must be a brother; that is to say, he must be “taken from among men” (5:1). Thus, when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim His Resurrection to the Church, He instructed her, “Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).
Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.

Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being. Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms:

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come/ —In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’ (10:5-7).

That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.

In today’s verses 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.

Saturday, December 6

Matthew 1.18-25: Jesus was—very literally—Joseph’s adopted Son. He became the human father Jesus never had. In a sermon of the 12th century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux called him an alter David, “another David.”

Indeed, said Bernard, Joseph was a son of David, not only in flesh, but also in faith, in holiness, in devotion. Joseph is the biblical model of the fatherhood of God. It was in him that the young Jesus, in the years of his formation, first </>experienced the fatherhood of God.

God found in Joseph, said St Bernard, “as it were, another David, a man after His own heart, to whom He could safely commit the most secret and most sacred purpose of His heart (arcanum cordis—to whom, as to another David, He manifested the deep and concealed things of His wisdom, and whom He would not permit to be ignorant of the Mystery which none of the princes of this world have known. To him it was given to see what many kings and prophets had longed to see, but had not seen, and to hear, but had not heard. And he was given, not only to see and to hear, but also to carry, to lead, to embrace, to kiss, to nurture, and to guard.”

Joseph lived out the paternal instinct God placed in the heart of men, to support, protect, and nurture their families. This is something young men normally learn in their homes, from observing their own fathers. And this was the case, too, for the One whom Isaiah called, “the father of the world to come

Acts 6.8—8.3: On this day, Christians of the West have long observe the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Stephen. He died for the Faith, of course, but it would have been pointless to die for the faith if he had not died forgiving his enemies, the very men who were stoning him to death, and praying for them.

Doing good to our enemies is of a piece with forgiving them, a thing the Lord repeatedly commands us to do. It is important to observe exactly the nature of the mandate. We are not enjoined to “feel forgiveness.” God seems not the least bit concerned how we feel on the subject of our enemies.

In this case too, it may happen that the cultivated habit of forgiving our enemies may actually lead, down the road, to subjective sentiments of forgiveness. Well and fine, but it is the act, not the feeling, which is commanded.

The martyred Stephen may have felt rather bitterly about those enemies, “stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” who were violently taking his life. If so, it is a matter of no moment. The important thing is that Stephen really forgave them (Acts 8:51,60).

Sunday, December 27

Revelation 20.1-10: Revelation 20:1-6: 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.

Monday, January 28

Revelation 20.11—21.8: Gog was already well known to readers of Ezekiel 38-39, who would scarcely have been surprised to hear of him, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past. The Hebrew name Gog (or Gug) corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 644. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of Herodotus.

The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like the other names in these chapters of Ezekiel, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references. Thus understood, Gog and his forces appear here in Revelation 20. “Magog” appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” Here in Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog, much as, elsewhere in the book, one beast shares his authority with the other beast in 13:4.)

In Revelation 20:11-15 everything testifies to its own contamination by “fleeing” from the throne of God. In Chapter 4 John had seen that throne as the origin of all things, and now he sees it as the arbiter of history. Everything flees before it. This is the final judgment, and it belongs to God alone. Here we meet once again the image of the “Book of Life” that appeared earlier in 3:5; 13:8; 17:8.

Then begins John’s final vision, which lasts two chapters. Here John becomes aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos.

The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. 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.

Tuesday, December 29

Revelation 21:9-27: 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 triliteral 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.”

All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.

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.

We recall that one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square,

Wednesday, December 30

Matthew 25.14-30: This story about three men ends with their eternal separation; two of them enter into the joy of their Lord, while we are told of the third, “cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As this is the final sentence of today’s story, it gives the entire parable a rather sober tone.

The sobriety of this tone also lays on the Church’s preacher an added burden today. Since the prospect of “outer darkness” is the fate awaiting the lazy, heaven help the preacher who fails in his responsibility to explain the meaning of this story.

The parable reflects the actual experience of the human condition, because we all know that the native and social assets of individual people greatly differ. Each man in the parable receives a different measure.

What, indeed, does each man receive? He receives from God exactly the measure required for him to accomplish the goals of his own vocation. God gives him no more, no less.

It is pointless for one of these servants to look around with either envy or criticism of the other servants. The essential thing is for each of God’s servants to work with what God has given him, because each of us has a responsibility of stewardship for his own life and assets.

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 not to 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.

Thursday, December 31

Matthew 25.31-46: It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that “He will come again in glory to judge.” This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousiaˆ of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).

The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”—panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.

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. Didache 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.

Friday, January 1, 2020

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 authors 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.

The first five verses are built around a double theme: the eternal life of God and the created being of the world. These aspects of the theme are distinguished by the tense and form of their respective verbs.

First, with respect to God the verbal is the imperfect tense (denoting continued action in past time) of the verb eimi, “to be.” Thus, in verses 1-2 we have:

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.”

Second, with respect to Creation, the verbal form is the aorist tense (denoted a single time in the past) of the verb gignomi, “to become,” or “to come to be.” Thus, in verses 3-4 we have:

“All things came to be through Him,
and without Him nothing came to be.
What came to be in Him was life.”

The noun “God” is used in two ways in the opening verses: First, it appears with the article (ho Theos), in a substantive sense, to refer to God the Father. Second, it appears without the article (Theos), in a predicate sense, to refer to the divine Word. Thus, “the Word was with God [ton Theon], and the Word was God [Theos]. He was in the beginning with God [ton Theon].”