December 3 – December 10, 2021

Friday, December 3

Psalms 85: “Unto us a Child is born,” the lyric prophet wrote, “unto us a Son is given” (Is. 9:6). And he wrote these things with respect to the Incarnation of the divine Son becoming a human Child. Both aspects of this Christian mystery, which Isaiah perceived so lucidly (cf. John 12:41), were likewise seen by the Wise Men who came with adoration to welcome this Newcomer to the scene, the divine Son and human Child. St. Ambrose of Milan comments on these Wise Men: “When they looked upon the little one in the stable, they said: ‘Unto us a Child is born.’ And when they beheld His star, they exclaimed: ‘Unto us a Son is given.’ On the one hand, a gift from earth, and on the other a gift from heaven, for both are one Person, perfect in both respects, with no change in His divinity, and no diminution of His humanity. Only one Person did these Wise Men adore, and to one and the same did they present their gifts, showing that He who was beheld in the stall was the very Lord of the stars” (On Faith3.8.54).

Psalm 85 (Greek & Latin 84) is a further canticle honoring both facets of the Incarnation, for the latter is that history-defining encounter of two worlds, wherein “the Lord will grant His mercy, and our earth shall give its fruit.” “Truth has arisen from the earth,” we pray in this psalm, speaking of the Child born unto us, “and righteousness has stooped down from the heaven,” we go on, telling of the Son given unto us. This union is the sacrament of God become Man, in which “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have shared a kiss.”

Thus, still following St. Ambrose, when mankind cried out in this psalm, “O Lord, show us Your mercy, and grant us Your salvation,” it was a prayer for the Incarnation, in which “He, who is God’s Son, is born as Mary’s Child and given to us” (On Faith3.8.56).

Such, ultimately, is the meaning of the lines with which we begin this same psalm: “Kindly have You been to Your land, O Lord, bringing back the captivity of Jacob. You have forgiven Your people their iniquities; You have covered all their sins. An end have You given to Your anger; You abandoned the fury of Your wrath.” All these blessings of reconciliation between two realms were accomplished, when the Father sent His only-begotten Son, “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Eph. 1:10).

In this mystery of God’s reconciliation, then, is fulfilled the prophecy of our psalm: “For His salvation is near to all those who fear Him, so that glory may inhabit (kataskenosai) our earth.” This glory inhabiting our earth is what was first seen when “the Word became flesh and dwelt (eskenosen) among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John1:14, 18).

The Father sent His Son in response to the most profound aspirations of men’s hearts, because Isaiah spoke for all mankind when he pleaded: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! / That You would come down” (64:1). Driven from God’s presence in paradise and retained in bondage to unclean spirits by reason of transgression, the human race with Adam and Eve cried out in our psalm: “Convert us, O God of our salvation, and turn Your fury from us. Will You be angry with us forever? Or from generation to generation prolong Your wrath? O God, You will convert us and restore us to life, and Your people shall rejoice in You.”

Christ, then, “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14), and likewise our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). It is of these things that our psalm says: “Righteousness shall go before Him, and He will set His footsteps in the way.” This is the Christ who “came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). This the Christ, “being both begotten of the Father before all ages and created from the Virgin in these final times” (Ambrose, On Faith 3.8.60).

We pray with confidence, then, in the words of our psalm: “I shall hear what the Lord God speaks within me, for peace will He speak to His people, and to His saints, and to those who turn their hearts to Him.”

Saturday, December 6

Matthew 21.33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (20:9-19), the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers is associated to a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and His enemies just a few days before His arrest, and each account ends with the comment that this parable is what determined the purpose of the Lord’s enemies to kill him. It is obvious to them that in this parable Jesus is giving His own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People, culminating in their rejection of Him and their resolve to put Him to death.

Jesus here identifies himself as the Son, and, as Son, the Heir. The outline of this parable is followed very closely in the opening lines of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, hath spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things.”

This parable is also one of the Gospel accounts where it is possible to discern the Lord’s original, spoken Aramaic clearly shining through the inspired Greek text. He calls himself “Son” rejected by the vinedressers and then goes on immediately to speak of himself as the “stone” rejected by the builders. Actually this was a play on words, the Aramaic word for “son” being ben, and the word for “stone” being eben. The drama of that moment is still preserved in this striking detail.

In Matthew’s version, this parable bears yet another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews, by including the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39, contrasted with Mark 12:8). That is to say, outside of Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the same point and then draws a moral lesson from it. Speaking of the Mosaic ordinance requiring that the bodies of the animals sacrificed as sin offerings be burned outside of the camp, the author of Hebrews comments: “Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:12-13).

We may remark, regarding this section, that the preferable manuscripts omit verse 44, which appears to have been borrowed from Luke 20:18.

Esther 6: The Emperor exalts the enemy of Haman; for the latter, this is entirely too much Although this is a political story, Haman’s real problem is not political but spiritual and psychological. He is the vice-regent of a large empire, but he cannot control his own anger. He cannot control his anger, because this anger expresses the response to his offended ego.

This is a man who must have total self-confirmation. If there is a single person who declines to respect Haman, this is one too many. The slightest suggestion that he is not supreme over all is sufficient to send him into a mindless rage.
Sunday, December 5

Esther 7: We come now to the ending of Haman. Like Htiler, he hated the Jews, but he was driven by an anti-Semitic ideology. Indeed, it is an individual animosity that makes him the most renowned anti-Semite until modern times. He becomes angry at the Jews mainly because he is angry at Mordecai. If a Chinaman had refused to show him the required deference, Haman would have become a misokinist.

Although there was an ancient strife between the Jews and the Amalekites, Haman may not even have remembered it, had it not been for Mordecai, who did remember it.

The Jew who wrote the story of Haman hit him where was most vulnerable: his self-importance and self-absorption. He is portrayed as a fool—a clever fool, perhaps, but certainly a fool.

He looks superficial and silly because he has an extremely vulnerable personality. We suspect Haman would not have minded so much being portrayed as evil. The genius of this story is that it portrays him as vain, superficial, and foolish. This is the man whose foolishness, joined with cruelty, prepares the instrument of his own death. He is the impulsive bungler.

Haman would have been glad that people in Chicago should remember him more than 2000 years after his death. He would not be pleased that people in America should be laughing at him more than 2000 years after his death. That is to say, this Jewish author managed to hit him hardest at the place it would hurt him the most.

The author of this book, as we have seen, feels no necessity that he should tell us, in every instance, why people do the things they do. He does not tell us, for instance, why Vashti declined to attend the banquet. He does not tell us why Mordecai instructed Esther to keep her ethnic identity a secret. Only rarely does our author disclose what the characters in this story are thinking.

The exception is Haman. We always know what Haman is thinking. When Haman became aware that Mordecai was not afraid of him, this was an insupportable thought. If Mordecai does not fear him, then he is not a man who need be feared. If Mordecai does not fear him, then he must be an insignificant person, and Haman cannot abide the thought that he may be an insignificant person. No one can be permitted to doubt the importance of Haman. Haman is, in short, an individual of gargantuan self-doubt.

We know exactly what thoughts go through his head at every point. Virtually every time Mordecai appears on the scene, the reader knows what he is thinking, what he is feeling, what and why he decides to do something.

Haman’s thoughts and emotions are laid completely bare. The depths of his personality lie naked on the page, with not the slightest subtlety or subterfuge. Everybody in the story, except the unusually dense King Ahasuerus, can figure out Haman. He is the least complicated character in all of literature.

At several key places, moreover, the reader recognizes the great distance that separates Haman’s thoughts from reality.

Thus Haman fancies that he is the one whom the king has a mind to honor, when the reader knows it is Mordecai.

Monday, December 6

Matthew 22.1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences. The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.

The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.

In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.

The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.

The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill-treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.

Likewise, Matthew’s version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).

Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.

Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).

To continue the allegory that is manifest in Matthew’s version of the parable, this final group of “servants” (verse 10) should be identified with the Apostles themselves, who traveled all the highways and byways of the world’s mission field, extending to all nations the King’s invitation to the wedding. Matthew, then, clearly discerned in this parable a narrative of the history of the Church in his own lifetime, the second half of the first century.

But Matthew is, as usual, especially interested in life within the Church, and for this reason he attaches to the present parable a shorter one (verses 1-13), not found in Luke. This is an account of an unworthy recipient of the invitation to the wedding feast, who is found improperly dressed. As the banquet begins, this unworthy person is mixed in with the rest of the guests, like the tares among the wheat (13:36-40), a bad fish among the good (13:47-50), both parables found only in Matthew. This feature of a “mix” also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, “both bad and good” (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).

Tuesday, December 7

Revelation 15.1-6: This shortest chapter in the Book of Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will be poured out in the next chapter.

The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), which also inserts the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth.

The “sea of glass”?(verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand God’s people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians—harpists to be exact—identical with the one hundred and forty-four thousand whom we saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too.
These elect have “overcome,” the very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.

John sees in heaven the tabernacle of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is “heavenly,” which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; ?Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5).

Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).

The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it? (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision Ezekiel ?saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezekiel 44:4).

The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers, to begin with, are offered “at the sea” (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). ?Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments, and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).

Wednesday, December 8

Susannah: Susannah, whose name was traditionally understood to mean “lily,” has ever been held in the highest regard by Christians. She was the woman “noble in faith,” wrote St Jerome. Her chief adornments, said St Hippolytus, were “faith, chastity, and holiness.” Faithful to the vows of her marriage, she would be repeatedly held up by preachers like Ambrose and Augustine as a sterling model of married chastity.

Indeed, several ancient Christian commentators observed that Susannah valued her chastity more than her life. She feared disgrace more than death; truly, the only death she feared was the death of the soul by sin. Choosing wisely and bravely with a safe conscience, Susannah held death in contempt. “In the sense of the Gospel,” wrote Hippolytus, “Susannah despised those who can kill the body, in order that she might save her soul from death.” Thus, Stephen of Grandmont observed that, in saving Susannah from sinning, God showed her an even greater mercy than in saving her from death.

Christians have been particularly impressed that Susannah, when falsely accused, spoke not a word to defend herself. Moreover, in Theodotion’s version of the story, she did not even raise her voice in prayer until after her condemnation. Rather, she prayed silently during her accusation and trial. As she was being accused, the text says, she simply “looked up with tears to heaven, because her heart trusted in the Lord.” “By her tears,” wrote Hippolytus in the third century, “she drew the Word from heaven, who himself was with tears able to raise the dead Lazarus.” As Origen observed a few years later, this devout gesture of Susannah is graced with a great literary irony, for it is to be contrasted with the description of her two lustful accusers: “Thus they perverted their own minds and turned away their eyes from looking up to heaven, and they rendered not just judgments.”

Susannah, then, did not attempt to justify herself but sought in prayer the justice of God. The church fathers never ceased to praise Susannah’s silent prayer. The Lord heard her petition, said Hippolytus, because “God hears those who call upon Him from a pure heart.” Said Ambrose: “She kept silence and conquered.” And again: “Susannah bent her knee to pray and triumphed over the adulterers”; “keeping silence among men, she spoke to God.” And Augustine: “She kept silence and cried out with her heart”; “Her mouth closed, her lips unmoved, Susannah cried out with this voice.” And Jerome: “Great was this voice, not by the movement of the air nor the cry from the jaws, but by the greatness of her modesty, through which she cried out to the Lord.” And again: “The affection of the heart, and the pure confession of the mind, and the good of her conscience rendered her voice the clearer, so great was her shout to God that was not heard by men.”

Thursday, December 9

Revelation 16.8-16: The fourth plague has no parallel in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance.

The final three bowls of plagues stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.

The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses’ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).

There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the whole earth. The sixth bowl (verse 12), like the sixth trumpet, brings forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19). Finally, at both the seventh bowl and the seventh trumpet there are bolts of lightning, peals of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).

The sixth bowl of plagues here is a composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the “drying up” of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological “inversion” (in the sense used by John Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.

Verse 15 contains a well-known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).

The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is “hill of Megiddo.” Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.

Friday, December 10

Matthew 22:41-46: While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.

As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).

Daniel 2: Our new prophet now begins to show himself adept at the interpretation of dreams, especially the dreams of kings. In this skill he proved a match for Joseph. Both Joseph and Daniel, moreover, sometimes had revelatory dreams of their own (Genesis 37:5–10; Daniel 7—8).

Psalms 103: One observes in Psalm 103 (Greek and Latin 102) a great effort to take into one’s own heart God’s manifold acts of mercy all through the history of the Bible. This is the God “who made His ways known to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel.” This is the historical God of the covenant and the commandments: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.” It is to this interiorization of the commandments, this “remembrance” of the everlasting covenant, that this psalm summons the soul: “Forget not all His benefits; He forgives all your iniquities.”

This inner knowledge of the forgiving mercy of God is the substance of the covenant that we have with God in Christ: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts. . . For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:33, 34; Heb. 8:10, 12). This knowledge of the true God is inseparable from the forgiveness of our sins: “ . . . To give knowledge of salvation to His people / By the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

In this psalm, then, the soul is called to the contemplation of God’s infinite, forgiving mercy: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. . . He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Indeed not, for “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).