December 31, 2021 – January 7, 2022

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. <i>Didache</i>9.5; Justin Martyr, <i>First Apology</i>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.

<b>Saturday, January 1, 2022</b>

New Year’s Day: As we pass from one year to the next, it seems an opportune occasion to think on the meaning of time.

We may begin by reflecting that for St. Augustine and others that studied the question carefully, there is no such thing as time unless there is a human mind to recognize it. Without a human mind, there is no present, no “now,” and without a “now” there is no past or future. Without the reflective consciousness, there is a certain sequence in things, but it does not rise to the level of time. Time, then, is a completely human construct, the human being’s awareness of the indivisible moment between memory and hope.

Time, likewise, goes in only one direction, and it cannot be reversed, much less repeated. According to Kierkegaard, “We live forwards, but we can only understand backwards.” This is another way of saying, as Augustine said, that the existence of time requires a reflecting mind.

Time is entirely existential. It has no essence. It has no being; it is closer to non-being than to being, because it exists only in the human experience of reflective freedom. And this reflective freedom is constantly faced with the dissolution that time carries in its wake. Time is essentially destructive; it tends irreversibly to the dissolution of everything within it. Time, as such, is not our friend, except as we make it our friend moment by moment, in the responsible exercise of reflective freedom.

In itself, however, and unless we do something to redeem it, time is essentially chaotic and meaningless. The chaos and destruction of time are disguised to us most of the time, because we have devised artificial ways of measuring it. We observe nights and days, for instance, by recourse to the spinning of the earth on its axis. We observe seasons by recourse to the tilting that accompanies that rotation. We observe years by recourse to the larger rotation of the earth around the sun. We observe hours and minutes by measuring the shadows that fall from a sundial.

None of  these things have to do with time, however. They are all contingent movements of bodies in space. That is to say, days and nights, and seasons and years, and moments and seconds tell us nothing about time. Time itself does not know about these things. Time is too busy making existence pass into non-existence.

There are those who believe that time is redemptive—that it will bring about a golden age by reason of some natural process within it. This they call Progress, but it is an illusion.

Others want to help Progress along toward the Golden Age by harnessing the dynamics of time through revolution. Entire civilizations have been nearly destroyed during the past century by revolutionaries that had in mind to hasten the arrival of that Golden Age. These are the false messiahs and false prophets against whom our Lord so clearly warned us.

All of this is illusory. Time, because it is chaotic and has no essence, represents death. That is to say, it serves as a symbol of the curse which entered this world by one man’s disobedience. As an icon of death, time is redeemed only through the reflective freedom in which the new Adam was obedient unto death and took formal charge of history.

This night, as most of the world deliriously pretends that something significant is happening by the passage of one year to another, we believers rededicate our lives to this new Adam. We lay the irreversible past before Him as the only One who can redeem those years that the locust hath already consumed, and the canker worm hath devoured. We lay before Him whatever is left of our future, confident that He who has been our help in ages past, will be our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

<b>Sunday, January 2, 2022</b>

Matthew 2.19-23: We now take up, and for several months will be reading, the Gospel of Matthew. It is instructive that to observe that this gospel begins and ends with Jesus’ relationship to someone named “Joseph.” In today’s reading, we learn of the last of Joseph’s revelatory “dreams.” This trait apparently goes with the name; it was through another dreamer named “Joseph,” we recall, that the People of God were brought into Egypt in the first place. Now a second Joseph brings them back from Egypt.

John 1.19-28: The Evangelist continues with a double interrogation of John the Baptist by the religious leaders from Jerusalem (verses 19-27). It appears that John has conflated stories of two delegations, one from the Sadducees (priests and Levites), the other from the Pharisees.  John found it easy to conflate the two interrogations, since both groups apparently asked very much the same questions—all of them about John’s identity. We should presume that John the Baptist was questioned on this point several times  (cf. Luke 3:7-18).

Both groups are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that now appears for the first time in John’s Gospel. In most of the instances of this word in John, it designates Jesus’ enemies—the “Jews” as distinct from the Christians. That is to say, John’s use of this word appears to come from a period in which the Church was becoming an entity readily distinguished from the Synagogue.

By the time John wrote his gospel, this form of expression hds become consistent. The “Jews” represent a religion that has set itself against Jesus the Messiah. In that context, the Church became “of age,” as it were; indeed, She has been expelled from Judaism and has begun to think of herself as a separate quid. In John’s Gospel Jesus prophesies, in fact, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (16:2). The Greek expression here is <i>aposynagógous poiesousin hymas</i>, literally “they will <i>unsynagogue</i> you.” The Church has become “unsynagogued.”

The first delegation comes to John from a delegation sent by the priestly family. This line of questioning has to do with John’s identity: Is he the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 19? John answers “no” to each question. John’s reiterated denial may be contrasted with Jesus’ own use of the words “I AM” all through this Gospel. This continues the contrast between Jesus and John, begun with the assertion regarding John, “He was not that light, but in order to bear witness to that light.”

Of these three negations by John the Baptist, the first is the most important: “I am not the Messiah.” He also denies being Elijah, the prophet expected to return in immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah (cf. Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:4-12; Luke 1:17). Although John the Baptist did not regard himself as the Prophet Elijah, Jesus regarded in the light of those prophecies of Elijah’s return (cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:12).

John also denies being the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15,18 (cf. Acts 7:37). According tp this Gospel, there were those who suspected that Jesus Himself was that Prophet foretold by Moses (6:14; 7:40).

Finally, when John is asked point-blank, “Who are you?” he responds by quoting Isaiah 40:3—“The voice of someone crying in the wilderness:

‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s understanding of himself in the light of this Isaian text is found in the Synoptic Traditions as well (cf. Matthew 3:3).

<b>Monday, January 3, 2022</b>

John 1.29-34: Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.

When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.

Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.

The Church’s Latin Fathers tend to understand the present text as referring to the Paschal Lamb. Among the Greek Fathers, on the other hand, John’s reference here has more to do with the Suffering Servant, who is likened to a lamb in Isaiah 53. Because the Paschal Lamb was not, in fact, sacrificed for sins, the sense in the present text seems to be that of the sin offering of Yom Kippur.

In identifying Jesus in this way, John sees Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53: “You make His soul an offering for sin.” This image of the biblical sin-offering became the earliest of the categories of Christology. Before we find it in Epistles of St. Paul, even before we find it in the Lord’s own words at the Last Supper, we find this thematic image already in the preaching of John the Baptist. John is the first to proclaim the message of the Cross. He is the first determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified.

This image appears likewise in St Peter: “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Indeed, this image appears in the earliest preaching of the Christian Church, as we see in Acts 8:32, where Isaiah 53 is quoted (by Philip to the eunuch) and explained.

Both images—the Paschal Lamb and the lamb offered for sins—seem to be present in the Book of Revelation, which most refers to Jesus as the Lamb (27 times).

John’s proclamation of the Cross pertains not only to the doctrine of Redemption; it pertains also to his own vocation. Because the One greater than he is the Lamb offered in sacrifice, John himself must accept in his own life and vocation the standard of the Cross. He too must taste the bitterness and the gall. He too must be mutilated in his flesh and bear the darkness of abandonment. Even before Jesus, John would die in testimony to the truth. Even with respect to the Cross, John would be the forerunner.

<b>Tuesday, January 4, 2022</b>

John 1.35-42: Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.

This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.

We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse  41) and “Kephas” (verse 42).

These things happened “about the tenth hour,” which would be bout 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The events in the next chapter took place the following day.

Psalms 8: By the Incarnation, this psalm says to God, “You have made Him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned Him with honor and glory,” in explanation of which Hebrews replies that “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor” (2:9).

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.”

Christ is no 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.”

The mystery of the Incarnation is the theme of Psalm 8. Christ is the reason for our singing out: “O Lord, our Lord, how sublime is Your name in all the earth, for You have set Your glory above the heavens.”

<b>Wednesday, January 5</b>

John 1:43-51: We arrive at “the next day” in our progress through this new week of a new Creation. At this point it may be useful to stop and reflect on the characters that the evangelist has introduced so far. We can divide these into New Testament and Old Testament characters.

The New Testament characters are, first, John the Baptist, then Andrew and Simon Peter. In this present reading he will introduce Philip and Nathanael.

The only Old Testament character introduced so far has been Moses. Moses appears again  in the present reading, and the character of Jacob will also be introduced. We will say something about each of these.

It is reasonable to surmise that the mention of Peter and Andrew in this section indicates they were the ones who introduced Jesus to Philip. In the traditional lists of the Apostles, Philip is normally named right after Andrew (cf. Mark 3:18), and we shall find them together later on (12:22). Although Philip is named in each of the Synoptic Gospels, these really say nothing specific about him. Not so in the Fourth Gospel. He appears significantly in both the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper, each time talking with Jesus.

The Nathanael introduced here is clearly Bartholomew. The name Nathanael, after all, never appears in the Synoptic Gospels, and the name Bartholomew never appears in John. His full name was “Nathanael, son of Tholmai,” Indeed, in the Syriac text he is known as <i>Bar Tholmai</i>. He is normally named after Philip in the list of the Apostles (Mark 3:18).

Philip testifies to Nathanael that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was written in the Law and the Prophets (verse 45). This is the first time John explicitly speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.

This mention of Moses continues the attention given to him already in this chapter: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

The allusion to Jacob is continued in the Lord’s conversation with Nathanael: “you shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This is a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob at Bethel, where he saw the angels of God ascending and descending at that holy place. Jesus thus identifies Himself as the new Bethel, “the house of God.” This idea will appear in the next chapter, when the Lord identifies His own body as the new temple.

Jacob will appear again in the Lord’s discussion with the woman at the well in chapter 4.

<b>Thursday, January 6</b>

Matthew 2.1-12: Among the notable features proper to the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the way it includes the verb “to adore” (<i>proskyneo</i>) in passages where that verb does not appear in parallel accounts in the other Gospels. Thus, Matthew describes various people falling in adoration before Christ in scenes where they are not said to be doing so in the other Gospel versions of the same stories. These instances include the accounts of the cleansing of the leper (8:2), the petition of Jairus (9:18), the walking on the water (14:33), the prayer of the Canaanite woman (15:25), and the request of Zebedee’s wife for her two sons (20:20). A pronounced emphasis on Christ-ward adoration, then, is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s narrative.

There is, furthermore, a special parallelism between the first and last instances of this verb in Matthew’s composition. These are the two scenes of the coming of the Magi, near the beginning of the Gospel, and the Great Commission to the Church at the very end. In the former of these, the verb <i>proskyneo</i>, “to adore,” is found three times (2:2, 8, 11), which is Matthew’s highest concentration of that word in a single scene.

Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles’ being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus. The very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the very stars, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star watchers. “For we have seen His star in the East,” they affirm, “and have come to adore Him” (Matthew 2:2). Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto Bethlehem, that “house of the Bread” (for such is the meaning of “Bethlehem”), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.

This adoration takes place within the “house,” which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him” (Matthew 2:11).

Finally, while the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that declare the glory of God, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

<b>Friday, January 7</b>

Matthew 3.13-17: I suggest three points of reflection about the Baptism of our Lord.

First, from the perspective of theology it was an initial  manifestation of the identity of Jesus. This is obvious in the way the Church celebrates the feast, of course, but it appears that the Gospel writers themselves regarded the event of the Lord’s baptism very much as it was regarded by the Church Fathers and the traditional liturgical texts, namely, as a revelation, not to Jesus, but to those who were present . . . and to the Church.

This interpretation is perhaps clearest in Matthew, where the Father’s voice speaks of Jesus in the third person, “This is My beloved Son.” In Luke the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus was visible-He came down “in bodily form (<i>somatiko eidei</i>) like a dove.” Finally, in the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist confesses, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'”

Second, from the perspective of history, this was an important event in the life of Jesus. It was the occasion of a determined resolve on the part of Jesus Himself. This idea, though it suggests an initial problem, points to a solution that touches on the very mystery of Redemption.

The supposed problem is this: Jesus came voluntarily to be baptized by John, even though John’s was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Why would Jesus do this? After all, the entire witness of the New Testament declares that He was the “lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19), “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26), “the Holy One and the Just” (Acts 3:14), who “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Moreover, Jesus was conscious of being sinless, for He challenged His enemies, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46) Why, then, did the unoffending Jesus seek a baptism of repentance?

The answer to this question has to do with the very motive of the Incarnation. God’s Son, in the assumption of our humanity, took upon Himself a radical solidarity with fallen mankind. Even before His saving Passion, in which “He poured out His soul unto death,” we already find Him “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The voice from heaven signified God’s acceptance of that redemptive resolve.

And this, surely, is why Jesus approached John, seeking his baptism in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It was not as a private citizen, so to speak, that Jesus came to the waters of the Jordan, but in order to present Himself to the Father as the representative of the human race in this great symbolic act of repentance. Jesus thereby expressed His resolve “to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17).

Jesus declared in the baptism of repentance His determination that no distance should separate Him from us.

Third, from the perspective of our life in Christ, the Baptism of our Lord is the form and pattern of our own. The solidarity of Jesus with sinful humanity, manifest and expressed in His Baptism by John, is an invitation to all of humanity to share in His Baptism, confessing their sins and receiving the mercy of God.

Once again, this is perhaps clearest in the Gospel of Matthew, which closes with the great commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian formula of Baptism, with which the Gospel of Matthew ends, corresponds to the Baptism of Jesus, with which the public life of Jesus begins.