December 24 – December 31, 2021

Friday, December 24

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.

Hebrews1.1-14: association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7), is one of the striking points of contact between the gospel parable of the vine growers and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The latter work begins, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son [hyios], whom he hath appointed heir [kleronomos] of all things”(1:1-2 KJV, emphasis added).

The historical perspective of the prologue of Hebrews is identical to that of the parable of the vine growers, which is found in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. In both cases the sending of the Son comes as the climax of a lengthy series of diverse missions dispatched to the vineyard. The former sending of the “prophets” in Hebrews corresponds to the repeated efforts of the Lord of the vineyard to gain the attention of the vine growers, who rejected the messengers, “beating some and killing some” (Mark 12:5).

In both places, there is an emphasis on how often God made those overtures. The first three words in Hebrews, polymeros kai polytropos, are better rendered with some attention to the repeated prefix poly-, which indicates “many.” The “at many times and in many ways” of the English Standard Version accomplishes this. The sense of repetition is also found in the Gospel parable. Several servants are sent, indeed “many” (pollous—Mark 12:5), even “more than the first” (pleionas ton proton—Matthew 21:36).

In this historical sequence, the Son comes “last” (eschatos). Mark’s version (12:6) reads, “Last of all He sent His beloved Son” (hyion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton). Hebrews, likewise, says that God “has in these last days (ep’ eschatou ton hemeron touton) spoken to us by a Son [en hyio].” Thus, the sending of the Son, both in the Gospel parable and in Hebrews, is God’s eschatological act (cf. also Galatians 4:4), bringing Old Testament history to a dramatic climax in the Son’s redemptive Death and Resurrection.

Saturday, December 25

The Birth of Jesus Christ: There was a song written by Hoagy Carmichael many decades ago. As far as I know, this song has never received a proper theological analysis. The opening line of that melody certainly proclaims the foundational problem of human existence, when it asserts, “When love goes wrong, nothing goes right.”

I take this line as a summary of chapters 3 through 6 of the Book of Genesis: “When love goes wrong, nothing goes right.” This is the entire history of fallen man—“When love goes wrong, nothing goes right.”

Human beings were created in order to love God. The whole business of the Fall was their determination to love themselves in place of God. As a result, nothing went right.

The feast of Christmas celebrates God’s supreme endeavor to set love right. When His Son assumed our human existence, a human being finally loved God in the way human beings were created to love Him. This is the answer to the question, “Why the God-Man” – – – Cur Deus Homo?

According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, God’s Son took on our flesh that He might offer Himself to the Father. Commenting on Psalm 39 (40), the author wrote with respect to the Incarnation, “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).

This is why God became man—to offer Himself to God in a perfect act of love, and thus to set everything else right. Christmas celebrates this assumption of our flesh and our whole existence in order to redeem the human race from the radical disarrangement inflicted on the world when love went wrong.

This feast is the celebration of God’s love in giving His eternal Son for us and on our behalf. If Hoagy Carmichael correctly stated the radical human problem, the Gospel of John proclaims the remedy: “I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love”— “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me” — “But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do.”

A very small human being, nestled in His mother’s arms, begins the long and painful process of returning the human race to a properly ordered love. When love goes right, everything else falls into place.

Sunday, December 26

Acts 6.8—7.60: begins to recount these, stage by stage, starting with the call of Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia. His point in starting in Mesopotamia is to show that God’s Word is not limited to the Holy Land nor tied to the temple or any Jewish institution. To demonstrate this point, Stephen speaks of the endless wandering characteristic of the patriarchal period. Even the covenant itself, he notes, was prior to the conception of Isaac. (This characteristic of the covenant with Abraham, particularly its priority to the Mosaic Law, will be an important aspect of the treatment of Abraham in Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.)

In Stephen’s discussion of Joseph (verse 9), he begins to introduce the theme of jealousy and rebellion, taking the attitude of Joseph’s sinful brothers as a foreshadowing of Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Their cruel treatment of Joseph makes him a type or figure of the coming Messiah, who, albeit innocent and unoffending, would also be condemned, sold, arrested, and put in prison.

Then, Stephen goes on, a pagan Pharaoh would receive favorably the very one that the sons of Israel had rejected, accepting him as their “leader.” Again those events formed a foreshadowing of Jesus’ rejection by the Israelites and His turning to the Gentiles. Here Stephen is addressing one of the most important messages of the Acts of the Apostles.

Stephen’s point is that the Israelites, not able to feed themselves, were dependent on a pagan people. Thus Jacob, father of all Israelites, died outside of the Holy Land, along with all the tribal patriarchs. Though they were buried in the Holy Land, the site of their graves was purchased from yet another Gentile. Meanwhile, it was in a Gentile land that the Israelites experienced their phenomenal growth. Even Moses was raised in a Gentile home and received a Gentile education. He too was repudiated by the other Israelites, who have never, Stephen contends, shown themselves satisfied with the leaders that God sends them.

Moses’ first encounter with the other Israelites was not very promising, Stephen argues; they did not want him for a “leader” nor a savior. As a result, yet once again, God’s designated leader of the Israelites was obliged to flee to yet another Gentile region, the land of Midian.

Like Abraham, Moses must become a “wanderer” or “pilgrim” (paroikos—7:29—the root of our word “parishioner”). Indeed, the very first land in the Bible to be called a “holy land” is found, not in Palestine, but in the Gentile territory of Moses’ wandering! It always seems to be the same pattern, says Stephen, because the Israelites are a rebellious people, recalcitrant to God’s provision. Thus, Moses will be treated by them no better than Joseph.

Since the Israelites rejected Moses as “leader and deliverer,” in spite of his miracles, how could we expect them to treat differently the latter day “prophet” that God would “raise up”? Here, of course, Stephen is citing the same text (Deuteronomy 18:15) earlier cited by Peter in Acts 3:22-23.

In this fairly lengthy treatment of Moses, Stephen is answering the accusation that he had blasphemed against Moses (cf. 6:11). He is saying, in effect: “Look, you stiff-necked people. I am not the one who insults Moses; you people have never stopped insulting him, right from the inception of his ministry. Even then you were already idolaters. Just as in the desert you worshipped a “work of your hands” in the golden calf, so you now idolize the temple itself.

In making this assertion, Stephen is specifically addressing one of the charges brought against him. Instead of defending himself, however, Stephen directly attacks his accusers . His trial ends rather abruptly.

Monday, December 27

1 John 1.1-7: In general, the word “we” has two possible meanings. First, “we” may mean “us” as distinct from “you.” Second, it may signify “you and I.”

We find both senses of “we” in the first chapter of the First Epistle of John. Indeed, this chapter is divided exactly in half by these two uses of the word, which appears at least once in every single verse.

Let us begin by looking at the first half of 1 John 1, carefully noting “we” each time we find it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1:1-5).

The first-person plural in these verses does not mean “you and I.” It signifies, on the contrary, “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance “we” refers to the authority of the apostolic witness, the genuine transmission of the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The “we” is the apostolic authority testifying to the rest of the Church: “we have heard from Him and declare to you.”

According to John, this authoritative witness involves the various senses by which the Apostles discerned God’s manifestation in the flesh—hearing, seeing, even touching: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “. . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).

In the second half of 1 John 1, however, the sense of John’s “we” changes significantly. It no longer means the apostolic witness but refers, rather, to “you and I.” It is no longer the “we” of authority, but the shared “we” of common experience. Indeed, the “we” of these five verses can even be called hypothetical, inasmuch as John’s whole argument consists of a series of “we” (“you and I”) suppositions. An “if” clause appears in every verse and always with a “we.”

Thus, “[1] If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we ie and do not practice the truth. [2] But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. [3] If we say that we have no in, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [4] If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [5] If we ay that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

Whereas the first half of 1 John 1 is about the authority of the apostolic witness, the second half is mainly concerned with the forgiveness of sins. The word “we” in this respect places forgiveness in a social context. According to John, the forgiveness of sins is not set in an individual relationship between the believer and God. On the contrary, the forgiveness of sins involves a “we” in the shared sense of “you and I.” That is to say, it is situated in the context of the Church, that society formed by the authority of the apostolic witness

Communion with the Church, for John, is essential to forgiveness. Membership in the Church is how we have communion with God and His Son: } . . . and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” This full communion with God and His Son, a reality inseparable from communion with the Church, is the framework of the forgiveness of sins: “we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

It is in communion with one another that we are cleansed from our sins by the blood of Jesus. There is no such thing as the remission of sins apart from this communion of the church.

Thus, John’s two senses of the word “we” are complementary, beginning with authority and ending with communion and forgiveness.

Tuesday, December 28

Revelation 20.1-15: 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.

Jonah 1: The Book of Jonah is a story full of paradox and irony, characteristics that mark both the person of the prophet and his career. Commanded by the Lord to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites, he proceeds in the very opposite direction, boarding a ship at the port of Joppa, headed to Tarshish (Cadiz, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar) at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea.

While other biblical prophets, such as Moses and Jeremiah, showed themselves reluctant to comply with their prophetic call, Jonah seems to be the only one whose reluctance was inspired by the fear of being successful! It is an important feature of this story that Jonah did not want the Ninevites to be converted; he wanted them justly punished, not spared. The original account of Jonah’s call does not tell us this fact; we learn it only at the end of the book: “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm” (4:2).

Then, in his very flight Jonah discovers another paradox of the Lord’s mercy, its uncanny capacity for bringing good out of evil. Thus, the prophet’s very infidelity to God’s call is turned into the means by which the pagan sailors come to know and worship the true God (1:16). Thus, Jonah’s prophetic ministry, precisely because of his attempted disobedience to it, is enhanced by the conversion of two sets of people.

Next, because of Jonah’s disobedience, God shifts to what may be called “Plan W” in His project to save the Ninevites. A great whale or sea monster swallows the prophet, but then, in the belly of this beast,
Jonah proceeds to sing a hymn of praise for God’s salvation (2:9). This too is paradoxical, because the salvation celebrated in this book is manifold. It is God’s twofold liberation of Jonah, both the deliverance from his own infidelity by the sending of the whale and his coming rescue from the whale itself; it is the Lord’s care for the pagan sailors; and, finally, it is the mercy shown to the Ninevites.

Wednesday, December 29

Matthew 25.1-13: These ten young ladies are doing just fine, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

The coming of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the “appearance” (Parousia) of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50). This is a parable about delay and the passage of time. That is to say, it is about the Christian structure of history.

The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful—the phronimai. Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times, the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

Perhaps the most memorable place in Matthew where these two adjectives, “prudent” and “foolish,” are contrasted is the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus declares, “Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos</>, a prudent man, who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros, a foolish man, who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).

This is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “going the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.

Thursday, December 30

Matthew 25.14-30: Tomorrow we will be reading the story of the Final Judgment—the separation of the sheep from the goats—as it appears in the 25 chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Today, we read the story that immediately precedes the story of the Final Judgment, the Parable of the Talents.

If we look at this story more closely, however, it is impossible not to notice that this parable, too, is about the Final Judgment. 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 Greek talanton and Latin talentum refer to a unit of coinage. The literal meaning is cash, money. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to the figurative meaning of a “talent” that we forget that the word originally means a unit of exchange.

Even the metaphorical understanding of a “talent” still carries the sense of an asset; it is a benefit, for which the “talented” one is charged with a responsibility of stewardship.

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.

In this respect, it is very important for each of us to “mind his own business.” What the Lord has given others, and what He expects of others, is of no concern for any of us. And to the extent that we are paying attention to others—whether with envy or with criticism—we are giving way to distraction. Such distraction will only impede our own stewardship.

Friday, December 31

Revelation 22.1-20: 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. The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.

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

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.