March 25 – April 1, 2022

Friday, March 25

The Incarnation: The assertion that the Word became flesh, whatever else it implies, certainly creates an entirely new and unexpected context in which to pose the question, “What does it mean to be a human being?” It is not logically possible to affirm, “God became man,” and then go on to consider humanity apart from that affirmation. In short, the doctrine of the Incarnation must dominate—have complete lordship over—anthropology.

Indeed, the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene of history necessarily divides the human race regarding its most elementary anthropological assumptions. Those who confess that the Son of God is now a human being are obliged to consider the concept of humanity in a way different from those who deny that confession. There is no possible reconciliation between the two. We who make that confession are not capable of viewing humanity except through a “Jesus lens.”

The secular society in which we live makes a number of anthropological assumptions that we Christians must renounce and, when appropriate, must refute. For example, there is prevalent today an interpretation of “human” as a branch of kinetic chemistry. According to this theory, the human being and all human activity find their adequate and correct explanation in physical laws, mathematical theorems, and chemical reactions.

This secular assumption, which is taught to American children today—from elementary grades through graduate school—has been around for quite a while, at least since the Encyclopedists of the mid-18th century.

Since then, however, the theory has grown more rotten. The Encyclopedists had some sense, at least, that human existence could be morally improved. Although Diderot and d’Alembert were pure materialists, they did recognize a difference between good and evil. Indeed, they were full of plans for the reform of human society by education and social engineering.

I think the problem with this kind of anthropology should be obvious: If the human being is only a product of biochemistry, then the only way to improve him is by some biochemical process.

It is a simple fact, however, that there is no such thing as a moral principle derived from mathematics, physics, and chemistry. It is pointless to look to these disciplines for moral guidance. That is to say, even as a mass murderer plots his next assault, he can appreciate the merits of “better living through chemistry.”

I take an example from literature. In his long detective story, The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins paints the unforgettable portrait of a character named Count Fosco. This unsavory individual, who is arguably the worst villain in the story, was trained as a chemist, and he believes that the human race—as well as each human being and all human behavior—can be explained by the laws of chemistry.

I quote from Count Fosco: “The best years of my life have been passed in the ardent study of medical and chemical science. Chemistry especially has always had irresistible attractions for me from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists—I assert it emphatically—might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity.

The laws of chemistry, however, place no moral restrictions on him. Even the human conscience, Fosco imagines, is the product of chemical forces, which can be adjusted. It so happens, however, that chemistry expresses no views relative to the telling of a lie, the violation of a confidence, the defrauding of an inheritance, the degradation of spouse, or the taking of a life. Chemistry, in the hands of the wrong person, is the science of poison and explosives.

For this reason, the Christian reader breathes an understandable sigh of relief when the chemical remains of Count Fosco—near the end of the story—are found floating with the flotsam of the Seine River and then put on display in the Paris morgue.

Saturday, March 26

Matthew 22.34-46: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, meet again among themselves (verse 34). One of their number, likely representing the rest, approaches Jesus to test Him (verse 35).

Matthew’s version of this story differs considerably in tone from the parallel text in Mark 12:28, where the questioner appears well disposed toward Jesus. The corresponding text in Luke 10:25 comes much earlier in the narrative, in a quite different setting, where it introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In Matthew, however, the question put to Jesus is integral to the series of skirmishes between Jesus and His enemies (21:15—22:46), which precedes the Lord’s lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the next chapter (which is also proper to Matthew). The present scene also takes up the theme of biblical interpretation, which was inaugurated in the previous story (verses 23-33).

While the Pharisees are still gathered in his presence, Jesus poses for them an additional exegetical problem (verses 41-46): 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).

1 Timothy 6:11-21: The epistle closes with a rousing pastoral exhortation, of the sort useful for ordination services. The expression “man of God” places Timothy in an impressive line that included Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1) and other prophets (1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22; 13:1). He must remember the profession (homologia) that he made at his baptism (verse 12), a profession related to the homologia that Jesus made in the presence of Pontius Pilate (verse 13).

This profession (cf. Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23) is our first explicit reference to the recitation of a creedal formula at the time of baptism. From the closing verses of Matthew we know that the earliest baptismal creed (like all the later ones that followed it) was Trinitarian in structure and content.

Verses 15-16 seem to be borrowed from an early Christian hymn (cf. also 1:7; 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).

Timothy’s task as a pastor was essentially conservative. He was to hand on,
intact and carefully guarded, the “deposit” (paratheke) that he had received. He was, therefore, to eschew, not only “profane and idle babblings,” but also the subtleties of argumentative dialectics (antitheseis) that were only a pretence of knowledge (verse 20). Paul manifestly saw the truth of the Gospel in danger of being lost by pastors who replaced it with the working of their own minds (verse 21).

Sunday, March 27

Matthew 24:1-14: There are few parts of the Gospels so problematic as the discourse of Jesus contained in this chapter. The corresponding text in Mark 13, which is clearly the major source for Matthew 24, is the longest private instruction of our Lord recorded in Mark.

In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.

With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.

This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).

The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.

When the disciples approached Jesus with their question, He was looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives (verse 3), an especially appropriate place to discuss the “last things” (cf. Zechariah 14:4). The question posed by the disciples seems to combine the Temple’s destruction with the end of the world. Only Matthew speaks of “the end of the world” here. This expression will, in due course, be the last words in his Gospel (28:20).

Monday, March 28

Matthew 24:15-28: This section of Matthew, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

In verse 15 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64). The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.

We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”

Matthew repeats Mark’s parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both Mark and Matthew had in mind.

The function of such prophecy is not to convey information, but to encourage vigilance.

The first particular of the exhortation is flight to the mountains (verse 16), which is exactly what the Maccabees did during the crisis of 167 B.C. Their flight, we recall, was not a surrender. It provided, rather, the opportunity to organize and consolidate their resistance to the enemy. Likewise, all Christian flight is intended as a means of carrying on the battle. Sometimes, in order to be victorious, there is a need for a strategic withdrawal for the purpose of achieving later advantage.

As when a house is on fire, the necessary thing is immediate flight, so the person on the roof must descend by the exterior stairs and not go into the house to retrieve anything (verse 17). He must not, like Mrs. Lot, look back. The Great Tribulation requires leaving behind a great deal. It is a time for decision, not dilly-dally. Such a requirement was illustrated in the vocations of the Apostles, who immediately left everything at the summons of Jesus.

The same abnegation is enjoined on those working in the fields. They must not come back to retrieve their possessions, particularly the cloak that they left beside the field while they worked (verse 18). They must not turn around (opiso). For obvious reasons the flight will be especially hard on pregnant and nursing mothers, who are among the most vulnerable members of any society (verse 19).

Tuesday, March 29

2 Timothy 2.1-13: St. Paul holds out three models for Timothy’s life. Timothy is not free to choose which of these he will follow. He must follow all three. The three models are the soldier, the athlete, and the tiller of the soil.

In comparing the Christian to a soldier, Paul makes two observations: a soldier fights, and the soldier relinquishes anything that distracts him from his duty. Soldiering is not an easy life. Paul writes, “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the ordinary affairs of life, that he may satisfy him who enlisted him as a soldier.”

It is very difficult, sometimes, to convince modern Christians that the Christian life is a vocation to incessant warfare. Such folk agree that the Gospel involves a bit of piety and some measure of virtue, but they generally don’t picture the Christian life as a fight to the death. Yet, in the Christian Church we receive new members all the time without mentioning that they are signing up for combat, and that the combat is very dangerous. We fail to mention to newcomers, including our children, that adherence to Christ demands that a profound change of life and a radically new life-style.

Next, the Christian is not only a soldier; he is also an athlete. (This word is Greek!) In drawing this metaphor from the sporting world, Paul has something very specific in mind—namely, playing by the rules. He writes to Timothy, “And also, if anyone competes in sports, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

Athletics is a social thing. It involves a common purpose and presupposes an organic social body. This social body, moreover, is transgenerational. Sports involve a living tradition, a set of social expectations handed down from one generation to the next.

The rules of any sport are enshrined in a narrative; they are established by a living tradition and common understanding. At a radical level, every sport is the history of that sport. One doesn’t just play in the event at hand; the athlete—even the race horse—is part of a living history.

Finally, the disciple is the farmer, the agrarian, the tiller of the soil. St. Paul writes, “The hardworking farmer must be first to partake of the crops.”

In comparing the Christian to the farmer, we should especially consider the extraordinary patience demanded by agriculture. Very few crops spring up overnight. Some crops do, of course, but a steady diet of mushrooms eventually becomes boring.

Many crops bear fruit annually, but only once. Although sweet-corn and tomato plants may bear fruit all summer, we don’t get a second-harvest of fruit trees.

Some grasses may yield more than one annual cutting, but a constant diet of alfalfa leaves a lot to be desired.

The farmer, therefore, must be patient and not expect things to happen on his own personal schedule. He submits himself to the requirements of the task at hand. He plants when he supposed to; he does not control this. Much of the Christian life is simply outside the Christian’s control.

Wednesday, March 30

Matthew 24.36-44: The second illustration, in the extended exhortation to vigilance, is the example of Noah at the time of the flood. All the signs of impending danger were present, but only Noah was able to read them. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (11:7).

But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also proclaimed righteousness. The Apostle Peter referred to him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (7.6).

This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1).

Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked. This is what things will be like, says our Lord, at the end of the world.

The similarity between “days of Noah” and the “advent” (parousia–verses 3,27,37,39) of the Son of Man consists in the suddenness of the crisis. Not until it is actually upon them do men realize what is happening. It is literally a kataklysmos (verses 38,39), from the verb klyzo, “to wash over,” “to wash away.” The people in Noah’s time, like those at the beginning of The Plague, by Albert Camus, were living what they thought were normal lives, not expecting the catastrophe about to befall them. This is how it will be when the Son of Man returns.

Among those people living normal lives will be believers. They will be living with the unbelievers, working in the fields, grinding at the mill (verses 40-41). Yet, God will distinguish between the believer and the unbeliever. He will take the one and leave the other.

This distinction, or judgment, already introduced in the parables of the tares and wheat (13:24-30,38-42) and the good and bad fish (13:47-50), is not taken up thematically. It will appear in the parables of the good and bad servant (verses 45-51), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), and the sheep and goats (25:31-46). God’s judgment means that some men be saved, others lost. Holy Scripture gives no evidence of any other conclusion.

Thursday, March 31

Psalms 77 (Greek & Latin 76): Some commentators treat this psalm as the meditation of an insomniac, the prayer offered by a man so afflicted with grief that he is unable to sleep. The case seems, however, quite the opposite. This is the deliberate vigil of a man who is fighting sleep precisely so that he can pray and meditate: “In the day of my trouble I sought God, my hands raised up to Him during the night. . . . My eyes stood sentinel through the watches. . . . I meditated in the night and communed with my heart and stirred up my spirit.” This is the prayer of a man struggling to stay awake, not someone unable to fall asleep.

The psalm deals with a problem: “In the day of my trouble I sought God . . . My soul refused to take comfort . . . Will the Lord reject us forever, and never again be gracious? Or will He cut off His mercy forever? Has His everlasting promise come to an end?”

Burdened with such thoughts, a man may well be tempted to seek refuge in sleep, as we see in the case of Peter, James, and John. These three men the Lord took with Him to keep a prayerful vigil during the hours preceding His arrest, but the task proved too much, the flesh being weaker than the spirit was willing. So in their sadness they gave themselves over to slumber while the Lord Himself continued steadfast in prayer.

The keeping of prayerful vigil in the time of trial was also exemplified by the earliest believers in those days when “Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. . . . Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church” (Acts 12:1, 5). Even as “Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers” (12:6), the Church maintained her prayerful vigil through the night.

And on what was the Church meditating as she prayed for Peter that night of trouble? We are not obliged to guess here. She was meditating on the Exodus. This we know for certain, because it was the night of Pascha, the night of salvation, the night that heralds the very dawn of deliverance (cf. Acts 12:3, 4). As she prayed for Peter chained in prison by Herod, the afflicted and saddened Church spent that night remembering the God who brought forth His people from the oppression and bondage of Pharaoh, and thus inspired she prayed for the renewal of God’s wonders.

The situation and the prayer of the troubled Church that night were very much those of our psalm, which also seeks strength by turning to meditate on the mystery of the Exodus: “With Your arm You redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and whirled back in fear, and the depths stirred with trembling. Awesome was the roaring of the waters. The clouds gave forth their voice, as Your arrows transfixed them. The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; Your flashings illumined the orb of the world; the earth shook and trembled. Your ways were in the sea, and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footsteps will not be known. Like sheep did You lead Your people, by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

The footsteps of the delivering God are covered over by the baptismal waters of the paschal mystery, and the praying Church seeks them again in meditation through the night: “Your way, O God, is in holiness. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who does wonders; You have made known Your power to the peoples.”

In fact we know how God worked His wonders for the Church during that night she spent praying for the imprisoned Peter, for the story goes on to tell how he himself shared in the mystery of the Exodus. Like the tomb of his Lord, Peter was being guarded by soldiers when suddenly the cell was illumined at the appearance of the angel of the Resurrection telling Peter, “Arise quickly!” (Acts 12:7). As on the morning of the Lord’s Resurrection, the whole scene appeared ethereal and unreal (12:9).

The artist Rafael caught this scene perhaps better than anyone else ever has, in his painting of it over the window in a room of the papal apartments called the Stanza of Heliodorus, skillfully using chiaroscuro to outline the figures of the soldiers and the rising Peter. Until one looks at it very closely, the painting easily passes for the scene of the Lord’s Resurrection. It is God’s answer to the Church’s night of vigil, meditation, and prayer.

Friday, April 1

2 Timothy 3.10-17: As a boy, Paul reminded him, Timothy had learned his Bible stories from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (1:5). We should particularly remember that the “Scriptures” intended in this reference are the Old Testament—the histories of Abraham and Isaac, the travels of Jacob and Joseph, the exploits of Joshua and Gideon, the romance of Boaz and Ruth, the poetry of David, the tragedies of Jephthah and Samson, the adventures of Daniel and his three friends, the perils of Jeremiah, and the journeys of Jonah.

Timothy would not study this rich material until he had some proficiency in grammar. A first and most serious responsibility of those raising children is to teach them grammar, a discipline chiefly conveyed through narrative. Ideally, one learns grammar before he begins to read. Timothy’s mother and grandmother not only raised him in the faith, but also instructed him in the study of sacred grammar, an expression taken from today’s epistle, ta hiera grammata. This is St. Paul’s clearest reference to domestic pedagogy. Timothy’s father was not Jew. The boy received his grammatical and literary education from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois, both of whom were literate.

Timothy learned the identity conferred on him by tradition. Personal identity, likewise, is not a private thing. It is, first of all, a domestic thing. In this respect, we need to return to the subject of grammar. Grammar, like sports, is inherited from tradition, and, in grammar, as in sports, tradition carries authority. These are not private things—they are inherited.

Thanks to the two older generations that instructed him, Timothy was enabled to read Holy Scripture through the eyes of the living Sacred Tradition, in which alone the Bible is properly understood. Timothy was raised in a literary culture, and there is no such thing as a private culture. All culture is traditional culture.

Culture, itself, is not a commodity that can be purchased. By definition, a culture can only be inherited. All culture is necessarily transgenerational.

This is true also of biblical culture. It is social. Timothy’s study of sacred grammar was a great socializing agent in the formation of his character.

By it he became one with his own history, including his family’s history, where his spirit assimilated the organizing influences of biblical history, poetry, philosophy, and narrative.

through this pursuit of grammar, wisdom, and historiography, Timothy learned to take possession of his heart. The stories of the Bible, organized around its integrating themes, enabled him to make sense of his heart.

The boy learned who he was, his place in this world, what God expected of him, and what he could expect, both during his life and at the end of it.

The stories of the Bible, assimilated in the context of his family, gave shape to Timothy’s moral imagination, conferring on his conscience a narrative moral sense. The biblical narrative gave imaginative organization to his mind.

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