December 23 – 30, 2022

Friday, December 23

Matthew 24.45-58: This image of the household in danger introduces the parable distinguishing the wise, good, and loyal servant from the lazy, dissolute, and wicked one (verses 45-51). This is the first of three consecutive stories in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents entrusted to the three servants (25:14-30).Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.

In this first parable Jesus describes the righteous servant as “faithful and wise” (verse 45). In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9). In the present text, we observe that the vocation of this servant is to feed the others in the household (verse 46).

He is also called phronimos, often translated as “prudent” or “wise,” but perhaps better rendered here as “thoughtful” or “reflective.” It is the same adjective used to describe five of the maidens in the next parable (25:2,4,8,9). Matthew also uses it to describe the man who builds his house on a rock foundation (7:24). It is the characteristic that Christians are to share with snakes! (10:16)

1 Thessalonians 5.1-28: Paul deals with, among other subjects, the theme of vigilance. This was not a theme peculiar to Paul, but part of the common catechetical inheritance of the Church, going back to Jesus Himself (Mark 13:33-37). Being common, it is found in other New Testament writers as well (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 3:2-3). When Paul speaks on this subject, therefore, he is saying something Christians generally expected him to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 3:2).

The life in Christ includes a vigilant, heightened consciousness, a stimulated awareness, a certain kind of mindfulness, clear and sharp thinking, and intelligent questioning. This vigilance will have some trouble with the general sense of stupor common in contemporary culture, where piped-in music prevents a person from hearing his own thoughts, and great efforts are made in the advertising world to prevent us from seeing the complications of things. Every single project—from the offering of new deodorant on the market to the construction of a new bridge or road—involves an underlying philosophy and a set of metaphysical presuppositions. The alert mind will search out these things, for the simple reason that its adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

Saturday, December 24

Matthew 1.1-25: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”

This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonia Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.

Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).

If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.

One of the most striking features of this genealogy is indicated in verse 16. After fifteen verses tracing what one would naturally think to be the biological lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (very much like the various genealogies in the Old Testament), we suddenly learn that it is nothing of the sort. We are minutely instructed with respect to the biological lineage of Joseph, only to be informed that there existed no biological link between Joseph and Jesus! There is a great irony in this legal—as distinct from biological—lineage. Supremely the Heir to God’s covenants with Abraham and David, Jesus is in no way dependent upon them. On the contrary, the final significance of Abraham and David is derived entirely from their relationship to Jesus.

As the subsequent narrative begins, 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.

Sunday, December 25

The Birth of the Savior: Because of the linguistic duplications in the English language, chiefly as the result of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English seems to have at least two words for nearly everything.

Indeed, the greatest treasures of the English language, the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, owe a great deal of their grandeur and power to this duplicating quality of English vocabulary.

This doubling character of the English idiom is used to great effect to replicate, in translation, some major features of the Hebrew Bible. When the Psalms and Prophets, for example, use couplets and poetic parallelisms—polarity, merismus, contrast, and so forth—the English translators of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book took care to strengthen those forms by alternating between Norman and Saxon words. Hardly any other language in the world can do this so consistently and with such literary art.

Now one of the words we run into, from time to time, in Christian hymnography and other texts of worship, we use the word “ineffable.” It literally means, “cannot be spoken.” That is to say, “ineffable” means exactly the same thing as “unspeakable.” The word “unspeakable” is Saxon; the word “ineffable” is Norman. The difference between them is historical, not semantic.

It is curious, however, that we tend to use the word “unspeakable” for bad things, whereas we reserve the word “ineffable” for good things. We declare, for instance, that such and such a sin is unspeakable, whereas the Virgin Mary is described as “ineffable.”

In our worship, consequently, we tend to avoid the word “unspeakable” and use the expression “ineffable.” We speak of ineffable mysteries. We say that the Word became incarnate “in an ineffable manner.”

On this feast of the birth of the eternal Word in Bethlehem, it may be not out of place to reflect on this adjective “ineffable.”

It is derived from the Latin root fari, which means, “to speak.” So the prefix “in-“ denotes “not.” The opposite of “ineffable” is “effable,” what means “can be spoken.”

A speaker, then, is a fans; this is the active participle of fari. On the other hand, if someone cannot speak, he is called an “infans.

And that consideration, I think, brings to the mystery we remember tonight, in which we behold God’s eternal Word as an infans, an “infant,” someone incapable of speech.

And being incapable of speech, the Word is also incapable of thought. And being incapable of thought, he is incapable of self-reflection. And being incapable of self-reflection, he has no idea who he is. And having no idea who he is, he must depend on those who arrived in this world before he did. For his very sense of identity, he depended on others, especially his mother. All this St John summarizes in a short expression, ho Logos sarxs egeneto. “the Word became flesh.”

To this depth did the Word of God deign to descend. For our sake He gave up, for a while, the power to speak and to think. In doing this, the Word of God made himself one with all the infants of the world, putting himself in their condition.

This, I submit, is the mystery of Christmas.

Monday, December 26

Acts 6.8—7.60: Today, like good king Wenceslas, we look out on the feast of Stephen. I suggest that this glance take in three details of the story.

First is Luke’s description of the death of Stephen like the Savior (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), Stephen is executed outside the wall of Jerusalem (Acts 7:58), because even in this massive miscarriage of basic justice, Stephen’s murderers adhere to the Mosaic prescription (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35–36). This is ironic, because in Lukan theology this exit from Jerusalem, for the murder of Stephen, symbolizes that outward movement of the witness from Jerusalem that is so strong a theme in the Book of Acts (1:8).

Stephen’s death, then, represents the geographical extension of the Gospel. Indeed, Luke tells us, “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.” Stephen’s martyrdom thus serves much the same function as the coming of the Magi: the growth of the Gospel. In the case of the Magi, this happened through the blood of the innocent children slain by Herod. In Stephen’s case, it occurred through his own death.

Related to the same theme of evangelical expansion, it is in the scene of Stephen’s death that St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is first introduced in the Acts of the Apostles (7:58). This introduction, at exactly this point in the narrative of Acts, is of a piece with the theological significance of Stephen’s dying outside of the walls.

Later on, praying in a state of trance, Paul will say to Jesus, “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (22:20).
Second, this dreadful incident of violence becomes the medium of divine grace, exemplifying Paul’s contention that “where sin abounded, grace abounded yet more.”

That is to say, for those who serve God there is no such thing as an unredeemable tragedy, for the Lord habitually brings good out of evil. Had he not seen Stephen die, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus, Paul might not heard the voice that spoke to him on the road to Damascus. Recall that Paul heard the prayer of Stephen, in which he prayed for those who murdered him. Stephen’s prayer was a proclamation of the Gospel, every bit as much as the message of the angels to the shepherds. The Gospel is proclaimed in how we live and how we die. How we live and how we die are more important than anything we will ever say.

Third, in the story of Stephen there is a powerful emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Of Stephen it was said three times—more than any other person in the Bible—that he was full of the Holy Spirit.

And what does a man do who is full of the Holy Spirit? Of Stephen we read, “he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Behold! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” This is the vision given by the Holy Spirit, who always directs the gaze of the believer to the right hand of God, where the Lamb stands as thought slain in the midst of the Throne and the four and twenty elders.

This emphasis on the influence of the Holy Spirit, which relates Stephen’s death to the outpouring of Pentecost, reflects the conviction of the early Church that martyrdom is the supreme charism of the Christian life. It is the final, perfect, and crowning gift of the Holy Spirit that definitively seals and consecrates the testimony, the martyria—the testimony—of the Church and the believer.

The annual commemoration of the death of Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Except for the days of Holy Week and the paschal cycle itself, it is likely that the annual observance of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar. Yet, when the two feast days came together some time later, feast began to throw light on the other. Christmas explained Stephen: he was able to see the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand, only because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And Stephen, in turn, explained Christmas: He illustrated, by his death, the redemptive reason for which God’s Son emptied Himself and assumed our mortality. The Son of God was born at this season to bring forth men like Stephen. Such believers are the best witnesses to the truth of the Incarnate

Tuesday, 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 lie 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 say 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.

Wednesday, December 28

Revelation 20.1-15: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. In order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to John. In the Judaism of John’s time there was the popular belief that the Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more recently, in Hitler’s fantasy of a “thousand-year Reich”). This popular belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who live a thousand generations.

John’s scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is portrayed as a very old man, the “Ancient of Days,” who would take the authority from the fourth beast and give it to God’s holy ones, those who are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14).

We note that Daniel 7 speaks of “thrones” in the plural, which Christians understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah (Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To say that the believers will judge does not mean, of course, that they will judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the depths of the human heart.

Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history’s end, will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of history.

This, then, is their thousand years’ reign. It is that area of Christian experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of them the battle with Gog and Magog.

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

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

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

<>Thursday, December 29

Psalms 144 (Greek & Latin 143): Among the most difficult verses of Holy Scripture are those that speak of the “thousand-year reign of the saints,” in Revelation 20, which we considered yesterday. Being difficult, the interpretation of those verses has also spawned considerable disagreement, even in the early years of the Church. For example, in the mid-second century St. Justin the Martyr, who took those verses in a rather literal sense, also testified that not all Christians agreed with him on the point.

In more recent centuries, the interpretation of those references to a millennium was joined to various speculations about the “rapture” (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17) of believers, an interpretive approach arguably disadvantaged by its combination of two obscurities in order to arrive at a third.

Another interpretation of the “millennium,” less sensational—and therefore less appealing to those who prefer sensations—draws attention to two other large theological truths by way of exegetical principle: first, that the Kingdom of Christ is not a kingdom of this world (John 18:36); and second, that Christ already reigns in His Church, the house of Jacob, the saints who even now confess His name among the nations (Luke 1:33). This is the reign of grace (Rom. 5:17, 21). And we believers already reign with Him, for we are already kings, and our reign has even now commenced (Rev. 5:10). All this is to say that the millennium is a theological dimension of the present hour, “these last days” (Heb. 1:2).
I take Psalm 144 to be descriptive of the present reign of Jesus our Lord, the Son of that very David to whom it is ascribed. By this I do not mean Christ’s reign solely in heaven, where He is enthroned at the right hand of the Power. This is not a psalm about heaven; it contains too much indication of conflict for this to be the case.

This psalm has in mind, rather, the reign of Christ over the faithful on earth, His dominion over our hearts. This is a psalm about life here below; heaven is the place above the present fray. It is the place from whence we hope to receive our help: “Lord, bow the heavens and descend; touch the peaks, and make them smoke. Flash forth Your lightning bolts and scatter them. Let fly Your missiles, and dismay them. From high above extend Your hand. Snatch me up and rescue me, from the flooding waters’ torrent, from the hand of foreign sons.”

On earth the reign of Christ in His saints is an experience of both war and peace, which two components dominate, respectively, the first and second halves of our psalm.

Inasmuch as “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12), the Christian life is properly thought of as combat. Thus, Jesus, as King, is also a military leader, God’s final answer to that ancient petition “that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). Thus, in this psalm we bless Him for teaching our hands to do battle and our fingers to make war, and for delivering us from the evil sword

Thus, the Christ who appears in the first half of our psalm is the One described by St. John: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. . . . He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses” (Rev. 19:11–14).

But Christ is also the Prince of Peace, the latter being the theme of the second half of our psalm. This part describes “the blessings of those whose God is the Lord.” However literally or figuratively we are to understand the sons like ripened shoots, the daughters like pillars in a temple, the full storehouses, the many sheep and fattened cattle, they all refer to the tranquility and prosperity of a well-governed realm. Such is the Kingdom of the Christ celebrated in this psalm.

Friday, December 30

Matthew 25.14-30: In this reading about the talents in the last dominical discourse in Matthew, let me draw attention to two points: the custody of time and the ambiguity of fear.

First, the custody of time. This is the third and last of three stories in Matthew about the passage of time. Because he perceives what he thinks to be a delay in his Master’s return, this irresponsible servant is deceived into believing that time is on his side. He can put off his duties to a later date. His sin is procrastination, a noun drawn from the Latin adverb cras, meaning, “tomorrow.”

In English, “tomorrow” is often treated as a noun. This is a philosophical mistake. And this was the mistake of the irresponsible servant; he did not know the difference between a something and a hypothetical. “Tomorrow” is never more than a hypothetical; it has existence only as a concept. It is a product of thought, and it has no existence outside of thought. It does not have substantial existence.

The irresponsible servant in today’s parable, because he isn’t thinking clearly, loses his custody of time, chronos. “Tomorrow” is one thing we’re never sure of. We have no custody of it. We only have custody of “right now.”

The faithless servant in this parable is given ample time to repent, but he spends his whole life without regard to the end of it; he refuses to face the fact that he will eventually have to account for it.

Second, the ambiguity of fear. When his Master does return, the only excuse of the irresponsible servant is, “I was afraid,” phobetheis. What’s this? You were afraid? What do you mean, you were afraid? Wrong answer! The fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, young man, and you are, emphatically, not wise.

Clearly, you have not only misunderstood time; you have also misunderstood fear. You are using fear as an excuse. The first thing a young person is supposed to be taught is that fear is never an excuse. Fear is an incentive.

When the Bible says that the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, it does not mean a crippling fear. It does not a servile fear. It is not a sniveling cowardice. The fear of the Lord means reverence. It is an ennobling fear, and it is an enabling fear. The fear of the Lord is a reverent piety, expressed in obedient stewardship.

We must not be confused by the ambiguity of the word “fear.” Consider, for instance, two assertions of Holy Scripture: First, the Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring forever and ever.” And the Apostle John affirms, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Well, which is it? Does the fear of the Lord last forever and ever, or does perfect love cast it out? Is there a contradiction here? I submit that there is no contradiction here. Perfect love expels a certain kind of fear, but there is another kind of fear that is, in fact, refined by love.

The fear of the Lord that endures forever is, I submit, the moral caution that fears offending the Lord. This is a fear to be cultivated, not cast out.

I fear offending God, for the same reason I fear hurting anyone I love. The more I love someone, the more cautious I will be, lest of I cause hurt—lest I offend—this person.