December 30, 2022 – January 6, 2023

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.

Saturday, 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. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) 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 should 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.

Sunday, January 1

Hebrews 3.1-19: In this chapter, the author introduces what is arguably his major moral concern of this work: the danger of turning away from the faith professed by the Christian at the time of his baptismal rebirth.

He refers to this baptismal profession (homologia in the first verse of this chapter: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [homologia], Christ Jesus” (3:1). Explicit references to this baptismal profession appear two other times in Hebrews: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession “ (4:14). And again, “Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering” (10:23).

Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.

To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.

The author of Hebrews makes this point by citing Psalm 95 (94) and commenting on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘ They shall not enter My rest.’”

That psalm, used as an invitation to prayer (“Come, let us sing unto the Lord”), daily renewed in the mind of God’s people the terrible fate of that generation of Israelites for whom the Exodus itself came to naught. They left Egypt for nothing. They died without reaching the very purpose of the Exodus—arrival in the Promised Land. That psalm warned all Israelites that the same fate could befall them!

Our author, therefore, cites this text, and then he goes on to comment: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”

Just like the Israelites who left Egypt and then died in the desert, it is possible to fail in the profession of the Christian faith. Ultimate defection is, therefore, a matter of grave concern. How concerned should Christians be on this point? Our author answers, “everyday!” He says, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our conviction steadfast to the end.”

Hebrews is not the only place where the New Testament examines that period of Israel’s history in order to learn a warning. St. Paul does exactly the same thing: “I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for they were scattered in the wilderness. . . . Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:1-5,11).

It is important to learn the life in Christ, not only from the good examples, but also from the bad. Why is the story of Judas Iscariot referred to six times in the New Testament, except as a warning to Christians who may become complacent and forsake the fear of the Lord? If the Word of God is truly a lamp unto our feet, it will surely illumine for us the pitfalls along the path. In this way, it is possible to learn as much from the impatience of Saul as from the patience of Job. The study of Ahaz can be, in its own way, as profitable as the study of Isaiah.

Monday, January 2

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.

Among the Latin Fathers, it was usual to explain the present passage in John by reference to the Paschal Lamb.

This does not seem to be the exclusive sense in the present passage, however, and the Greek Fathers generally explain our present text with reference to the Lord’s Suffering Servant is likened in Isaiah 53. Because the Paschal Lamb was not 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 (verses 7-12): “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: “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.

Tuesday, January 3

Genesis 3: Probably because she was the world’s first offender, Holy Scripture
goes into some detail to describe the temptation to which Eve succumbed. Her temptation serving as a kind of paradigm of all temptation, Eve stands as the Bible’s first negative model of the moral life; her lapse provides the initial description of how the demons deal with the human soul.

Perhaps, indeed, St. Paul was indicating as much when he wrote to
the church at Corinth, “I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Thus, if we want to understand how temptation functions in human psychology, we can hardly do better than to examine the temptation of Eve.

Prior to succumbing, Eve is tempted in three stages: (1) “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,” (2) “that it was pleasant to the eyes,” (3) “and a tree desirable to make one wise”—“she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6). We may reasonably say that these three steps in the temptation correspond to “all that is in the world”— namely, “the lust of the flesh [‘good for food’], the lust of the eyes [‘pleasant to the eyes’], and the pride of life [‘desirable to make one wise’]” (1 John 2:16). At each stage in the temptation, Eve indulges a specious reasoning begotten of her passions. Objective moral strictures are not consulted. Eve’s fall results from a distorted pattern of reasoning, for her thoughts are dictated by her desires.

And how did Eve stumble into this tripartite temptation? By giving ear to the deceptive arguments of the serpent. The latter begins with a factual question: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). The idea is preposterous, and Eve hastens to correct the questioner. She feels justified in this, of course, because in answering the serpent she can even feel herself to be God’s defender. Alas, however, a conversation with the deceiver has therewith begun, and fickle Eve is a poor match for him. Her first mistake, then, was tactical. She should never have answered him at all.

Eve’s mind now engaged, the deceiver prompts her to question the very reason that God had given for the command, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17). In fact, Eve had never heard God say these words, for they were spoken before she was formed from Adam’s rib. Eve knew of the prohibition only through Adam. That is to say, God’s mandate, as far as Eve knew, was simply a moral tradition, perhaps subject to improvement. Why need she submit her moral judgment to the apodictic command that Adam had shared with her? She, after all, had a mind of her own. She was just as intelligent as Adam, who after all had not really been in this world much longer than she. She could figure things out for herself. Thus did our ancient mother commence the process of her own personal moral theory.

St. Paul describes Eve’s beguilement as a corruption from “simplicity” (2 Corinthians 11:3). In place of God’s emphatic command, known solely through the moral tradition available to her, Eve declared the autonomy of her own thought, not pausing to consider that her thinking was hardly more than the perverse assertion of her passions.

Wednesday, January 4

Psalm 8: From the very earliest translations of the Creed into the English language, the mystery of the Incarnation has been expressed in a rather puzzling way, even if our long familiarity with the words has reduced our sense of their grammatical enigma. We say of the Son of God that He “became [or “was made”] man.”

The puzzle posed by this construction is exactly how to classify the predicate nominative “man” in this instance. Is the sense of the expression indefinite—“a man,” much as we might say that “Fred became a farmer”? But if so, why didn’t the translators simply say that? “He became a man” would not only make sense; it would be both grammatically and theologically correct.

Or is the meaning of the expression merely descriptive—“he became human,” much as we might say “Fred became agrarian”? Here again, the translators could easily have said that, if that is what they meant, because God’s Son most certainly did become human.

No, neither of these translations was deemed adequate. Rendering very literally from the underlying Latin (and not directly from the original Greek, by the way), the translators said that He “became man,” leaving us with this stylistic puzzle. One can hardly think of an occasion, after all, in which we might properly say “Fred became farmer.”

What the translators gave us here is an idiom, which is to say a form of expression unique to a particular setting and standing outside of expected usage. On reflection, their recourse to idiom in this case is hardly surprising, for the event under discussion, the Incarnation, is itself “idiomatic” in the extreme, in the sense of being completely unique, utterly unexpected, and standing free of normal patterns of acquiescence. How better, after all, to speak of an incomparable and unparalleled event than by recourse to an idiomatic improvisation?

God’s Son did not only “become human,” though it is true that He did. Nor did He simply “become a man,” though this likewise is a correct statement of the fact. He “became man,” rather, in a sense defying grammatical precision as thoroughly as it confounds also the expectations of biology, psychology, metaphysics, and other aspects of the human enterprise, thereby shocked and left reeling, all its vaunted resources now massively strained and overcharged at the infusion of unspeakable glory.

The most correct formulation of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.”

The wise English translators of the Creed were taking their cue here from Psalm 8: “What is man (’enosh) that You are mindful of him? Or the son of man (adam) that you care for him?” According to Hebrews 2, which is our oldest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, the word “man” in this text refers to Christ our Lord, and the entire psalm is a description of His saving work.

By the Incarnation, our 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.”

Thursday, January 5

Genesis 5: In this first biblical genealogy we draw special attention to the figure of Enoch. After the Epistle to the Hebrews gives its initial definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), there follows the famous list of the “great cloud of witnesses,” those “elders” who “obtained a good testimony” by exemplifying such faith (12:1).

One can hardly fail to observe in this list the strong emphasis on death with respect to this saving faith. Throughout Hebrews 11 faith has to do with how one dies, and “all these died in faith” (11:13). This emphasis on death in the context of faith renders very interesting the inclusion of Enoch among the list of faith’s exemplars, because Enoch departed this world in some way other than death. Indeed, in the genealogy here in Genesis 5, the verb “died” eight times with respect to the patriarchs from Adam to Lamech, but in the case of Enoch, “the seventh from Adam” (Jude 14), our text says simply he “walked with God, and he was not found (ouk eurisketo), for God removed (metetheken) him” (verse 24).

By way of commentary on this passage, the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “By faith Enoch was removed (metethe) so that he should not see death, and was not found (ouk eurisketo), because God removed (metetheken) him; for before his removal (metatheseos) he was witnessed to have pleased (euariestekenai) God” (11:5). That ancient “witness,” cited here in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is found in the Book of Wisdom, where Enoch is thus described: “He was pleasing (euarestos) to God and was beloved of Him, so that, living among sinners, he was removed (metetethe). He was snatched away so that evil would not alter his understanding, nor deceit beguile his soul. For the malice of what is worthless takes away things of worth, and the roving of passion subverts a guileless mind. Made perfect (teleotheis) in a short time, he filled out massive times, for his soul pleased (areste) God. So He rushed him from the midst of evil” (4:10-14).

Such is the biblical witness about the “short time” that Enoch spent on this earth (a mere 365 years, according to verse 23). Unlike the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11, Enoch did not die in faith, for the unusual reason that he did not die at all. He nonetheless deserved a place in that heroic list, we are told, because “he pleased God” by his faith. Thus, when we believers “draw near unto the Throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), when we approach “the general assembly and church of the firstborn registered in heaven” (12:23), there stands Enoch among “the spirits of just men made perfect (teteleiomenon).”

Living before both Noah, Abraham, and Moses, Enoch was participant in none of the covenants associated with these men. Not a single line of Holy Scripture was yet written for him to read. Much less did Enoch ever hear the message of salvation preached by the Apostles. Yet, he was so pleasing to God by his faith as to be snatched away before his time, not suffering that common lot of death from which the Almighty spared not even His own Son.

What, exactly, did Enoch believe, then, that he should be such a champion of faith, an example for the Church until the end of time? The Epistle to the Hebrews explains: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). This was the sum total of all that Enoch’s faith told Him — God’s existence and his own duty to seek God to obtain the singular blessing that Holy Scripture ascribes to him. It is the Bible’s portrayal of Enoch, then, that affords us some hope for the salvation of those millions of human beings who must pass their lives on that bare minimum of theological information, for which Enoch rendered such a marvelous account.

Friday, January 6

Matthew 2.1-11: Among the notable features proper to the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the way it includes the verb “to adore” (proskyneo) 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 proskyneo, “to adore,” is found three times (2:2, 8, 11), which is Matthew’s highest concentration of that word in a single scene.

A literal reading of the Great Commission passage makes it appear that the Eleven Apostles are actually bowed over in adoration before the risen Jesus at the very time when the Great Commission is given to them (28:9). Thus, not only does Matthew portray various individuals adoring the Lord, but his entire Gospel can be said to begin and to end with that picture in mind.

There is a further important parallelism between the Christmas story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. 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.

1 Peter 3.18-22: Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”