January 6 – January 13, 2023

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.”

Saturday, January 7

Genesis 7: Noah’s construction of the ark represented his faith, 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).

Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also preached righteousness to his contemporaries. The Apostle Peter referred to Noah 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” (Epistle to the Corinthians 7.6). Evidently, however, their number included only members of his own family!

This picture of Noah as a somewhat unsuccessful preacher came to the early Christians from Jewish lore. 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).

Unlike Noah’s contemporaries, we ourselves hearken to his preaching. That is to say, we submit to this new baptismal flood because we repent at the witness of Noah. Baptism presupposes and requires this repentance of our sins, this conversion of our hearts to the apostolic word of Noah. In repentance we plunge ourselves into the deeper mystery of Noah’s flood, which is the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:3; Colossians 2:12).

Noah and his family wait quietly in the ark for seven days, until the rains come. The rains come “after seven days” (v. 10), which is to say, on the eighth day. The number seven, reminiscent of the week of Creation, signifies the old world, whereas the number eight serves as a symbol of the New Creation. In the second century, St. Justin Martyr remarked that “the mystery of saved men happened in the Deluge, because righteous Noah, along with other human beings at the Deluge—namely, his own wife, his three children, and the wives of his sons—who were eight persons in number, contained a symbol of the number of the eighth day, in which our Christ appeared, having risen from the dead” (Dialogue with Trypho 138.1).

Sunday, January 8

John 2.1-12: John tells us that this miracle was “the beginning (arche) of his signs that Jesus did,” and that “his disciples began to believe [aorist tense: epistevsan] in him.” This is not just the “first” of Jesus’ signs, it is the arche, the “principle,” the font from which the subsequent signs come forth. It is the transformational sign; it reveals the glory of Christ in such a way that his disciples, who have been with him only one week at this point, begin to believe in him.

The verb phaino, “to reveal,” is the root word for our English words “fantastic,” “fanatic,” and, simply “fan.” The disciples of Jesus start to become “fans,” fanatics, because they have perceived the transformation of the water into wine.

It was just inert water at one moment, but then suddenly it becomes alive. Wine is a living thing. This is the reason we use wine, not grape juice, in the Holy Eucharist. The fermentation in the wine means that it is a living reality, and the transformation of water into wine signifies the mystery of the Resurrection.

This transition of the chemical to the biochemical is what catches the attention of the disciples. This is really a new thing, and they begin to believe in him.

The Mother of Jesus—for John never names her—is sensitive to the shortage of wine at the feast, a circumstance perhaps caused by the unexpected appearance of Jesus new disciples, disciples he acquired only within the previous week. The text says that the Mother of Jesus was “invited.” It does not say that Jesus and his disciples were invited. It simply says that they showed up. I have always suspected that their crashing the wedding feast may have been the reason the wine ran short.

Whatever—it is the Mother of Jesus who first notices this, and she immediately assumes a mediating and intercessory on behalf of the newly-weds.

First, she speaks to Jesus on their behalf. Second, she speaks to the waiters on Jesus’ behalf: “Do whatever he tells you.”

This prayer and this obedience are not incidental to the transformation that takes place during the story. Water is transformed into wine whenever the Mother of Jesus intercedes for those in need.

Besides God, of course, she is the one who makes Christmas a reality instead of just an idea. Her assent to God in obedience becomes the model of all Christian service.

Monday, January 9

Genesis 9: The word “covenant” (berith), which appeared in Genesis 6:18 for the first time in Holy Scripture, is now taken up and developed. The earliest explicit account of God’s covenant, that is to say, is the covenant with Noah. The second divine covenant, which we shall see in Chapters 15 and 17, is God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis the idea of God’s covenant is found in only these two narratives.

The first, the Noachic covenant here in Genesis 9, is God’s covenant with all of the world and with mankind in particular. The second, the Abrahamic covenant especially as described in Genesis 17, is God’s more particular covenant with the descendents of Abraham, which will be further defined as the biblical narrative continues. There are several significant theological features shared by these two covenant narratives in Genesis, features reflected in a distinctive vocabulary that distinguishes them from the other covenants recorded in Holy Scripture.

One of the distinguishing features shared by these two covenants, in Genesis 9 and 17, is the choice of verbs employed to predicate it. In most of Holy Scripture, the verb used for “making” a covenant is karat, literally “to cut.” Although the initiative in the covenant is always God’s, the verb karat does suggest something of a mutual agreement between two parties. In fact, both the verb karat and the noun berith were commonly employed in the ancient world to designate political treaties. Examples of this usage are the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:27, and the treaty between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26:28. In God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18, moreover, karat is the verb employed for the making of the covenant, as is the case in most of the Hebrew Scriptures (for instance, Deuteronomy 5:2).

In these Genesis covenants of God with Noah and Abraham, however, two other verbs are employed: natan, “to give” (9:12; 17:2), and haqim, “to establish” (9:9,11; 17:7). The first of these verbs emphasizes the gratuity, the generosity, of God’s act in making the covenant; it is pure, unmerited grace. This is why, in each case, God’s calls it “My covenant” (9:15; 17:7). The second verb places the accent on God’s resolve in the covenant; God Himself will not break the covenant. Each of these covenants is a perpetual pledge of hope for the future.

A second distinguishing feature of these two covenants in Genesis 9 and 17 is the ’oth berith, “the sign of the covenant,” a distinctive symbol of each covenant. In the case of Noah the ’oth berith is the rainbow (9:12-17), and in the case of Abraham it is circumcision (17:1).

In the covenant with Noah, the function of the rainbow as a “sign” is to cause God to “remember” His covenant (9:15-16). The covenant sign serves as a reminder, as it were, a “memorial,” a zikkaron in Hebrew, an anamnesis in Greek. This theme will be taken up later on in Holy Scripture, when Jesus describes God’s definitive covenant with the Church in terms of an anamnesis (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The Lord’s Supper, that is to say, is not simply an occasion for Christians to remember Jesus and His saving work on our behalf; as a “sign of the covenant,” the rite of Breaking the Bread and Sharing the Cup is even more the ineffable ’oth berith to God Himself, in which He is called upon to “remember” the redemption that He has definitively given and established with us in the Lord Jesus. This is why the Church’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the defining act of her existence.

Tuesday, January 10

Matthew 4.12-17: Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew includes a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, / And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death / Light has dawned.”

W observe a curious variation in this text: Isaiah spoke of those in darkness as ha‘am haholachim bachoshek—literally, “the people walking in darkness. Matthew, however, changes this description to “sitting in darkness”—kathemenos en skote.

That is to say, those in the darkness are unable to walk; it is a darkness in which they can only sit. This is how Moses describes the ninth plague. Moses calls it choshek-haphelah. The darkness of the 9th plague was not just choshek—“dark”; it was, literally, “darkness of obscurity”—choshek-haphelah. It was extra dark, an extraordinarily dark dark. St Jerome translated choshek-haphelah as tenebrae horribiles—“horrible darknesses.”

Outside of Egypt the rest of the world, wrote the author of the Book of Wisdom, was filled with light. Over Egypt alone reigned this dreadful darkness: “For the whole world was illumined with brilliant light, / and was engaged in unhindered work, / while over those men alone a thick night was spread, / an image of the darkness destined to receive them; / but thicker still than darkness were those men to themselves.”

The darkness of Egypt was not simply the darkness of the atmosphere without the sun. No, it was the primeval darkness of non-Creation, the choshek that reigned before the voice of God created the light.

I am persuaded, to the point of certainty, that right now the whole world—but especially in the cultures of Europe and the Western Hemisphere— is experiencing Egypt’s 9th plague, the plague of terminal darkness. The major feature of this darkness is that is terminal. The 9th plague is inevitably followed by the 10th. Death is simply darkness rendered tangible.

If the world truly is engulfed in the darkness of the 9th plague, then it behooves the children of light to gird themselves, to put on the garments of light, to take hold of their staves, and prepare themselves to march.

In the Bible darkness is what you have apart from Creation. Darkness is non-Creation. Darkness is nothingness. It is over against the darkness of non-being that God says, “Let there be light!”

There is such a thing as the love of darkness. Indeed, the love of darkness is extremely common. Let us recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “This is the judgment (krisis): the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

The krisis of humanity is the confusion between darkness and light. The inability to distinguish them is always the sign of blindness and death.

Wednesday, January 11

Hebrews 6.12-20: This text appeals to the imagery of the anchor, which it identifies with hope: ““This [hope] we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters behind the veil, where the forerunner has for us entered—Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Christian theology insists that the true anchor is hope. This is the reason the depiction of the anchor appears everywhere in Christian art. Alone among the peoples of the Greco-Roman world, the early believers knew the origin of stability and the source of hope. In the words of this text, they “laid hold” on the hope set before them.

This is why the anchor—along with the cross and the fish—is portrayed everywhere in the Christian catacombs. It symbolized the hope that held Christians in place in the midst of a tempestuous and unstable world. Near the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria mentioned the anchor as one of the few symbols might legitimately have on ring on his finger.

Hebrews describes this anchor of hope as “firm and secure”—asphale kai bebaia. The first of these adjectives, asphale—which means “firm”—is the root of our English word “asphalt.” As an adverb we find it in the first Christian sermon: ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly (asphale) that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

The second adjective describing this anchor of hope is bebaia, meaning “secure.” Our author used it earlier to describe the Christian conviction: “we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence (bebaia) to the end” (3:14).

The entire efficacy of the anchor depends on the ship’s not losing contact with it. Hope cannot be hypothetical. We must be tied to it.

Thursday, January 12

Genesis 12: The genealogy of Shem’s descendents, at the end of Chapter Eleven, prepared us for this beginning of the story of Abram, whom we first find at the city of Ur, in the extreme southeast end of the Fertile Crescent. That genealogy also introduced other aspects of the later story. It told us, for instance, of the barrenness of Abram’s wife (11:30), which is a detail crucial to the later narrative. Likewise, it introduced Lot, Abram’s nephew, who will appear at significant points in the story later on. Similarly, it told of those relatives who were left behind; these, too, will be important in later aspects of the story.

The first migration goes from Ur up to Haran, at the very top and center of the Fertile Crescent (11:31), and from there Abram’s company proceeds to migrate south and west (verses 5,9). Passing through Canaan, also known in the Bible as Palestine (the Roman name for Philistina), Abram arrives in Egypt, the southwestern extremity of the Fertile Crescent. All of this migration is in obedience to God’s call (cf. Acts 7:1-5; Hebrews 11:8-10). Nor was Abram a young man at this point; he was already seventy-five years old (verse 4).

Abram’s brief sojourn in Egypt (verses 10-20) prefigures Israel’s later experience of that country. Thus, he is driven into Egypt by a famine in Canaan (verse 10), exactly as Israel will be in the final chapters of Genesis (41:57—42:2). In Egypt Abram encounters Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as Israel will do near the end of Genesis and at the beginning of Exodus. Indeed, one already observes Pharaoh to be a rapacious, threatening, high-handed man of arbitrary behavior, exactly as we will find the other Pharaoh encountered by Moses.

Similarly and again like Moses, Abram will outsmart this Pharaoh in a trial of wit and cunning. Moreover, Pharaoh is visited with divine plagues (verse 17), as the other Pharaoh will be in the case of Moses (Exodus 3:19-20). Like Moses and the children of Israel later, Abram and his family depart from Egypt. When he does so, Abram leaves with the wealth of the Egyptians (verses 16,20), as Moses will do later (Exodus 3:21-22; 11:1-3; 12:35-36). One also notes that Abram and Moses were about the same age (75 and 80) at the time of their departure from Egypt.

All of these elements in Genesis 12 prefigure the Exodus story: the arrogance of Pharaoh, the Israelite leader outsmarting and overpowering the Egyptian, God’s intervention in sending plagues, the vindication of the Chosen People, the departure from Egypt, the enriching of the Israelites with the wealth of the Egyptians. Thus, in just eleven verses of the present chapter, we have a sort of synoptic prefiguration of the last dozen chapters of Genesis and the first dozen chapters of Exodus. Moreover, the later Exodus of Moses will be foretold to Abram (Genesis 15:13-14; cf. Acts 7:5-7; Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16).

Friday, January 13

Romans 4.13-25: Suddenly, and as though by parenthesis, Paul asserts that “the Law brings about wrath.” This means that the Mosaic Law, by adding to man’s moral responsibilities, increases the opportunities for further transgressions, and these transgressions, in turn, evoke the divine wrath. That is to say, the Mosaic Law actually makes man’s moral situation worse!

Consequently, the Law cannot be the instrument of man’s salvation. Paul barely introduces this idea here; he will elaborate it at some length in chapter seven.

Paul here begins to treat the theme of death, a topic he had introduced in 1:32. From this point on, the arguments of the Epistle to the Romans will be directed at the theme of death, expressed in both the noun Thanatos (a word found in Romans twenty-two times) and the adjective nekros (found in Romans sixteen times). Paul commences his long argument that man’s justification has to do with Christ’s victory over death. That is to say, man is justified by the power of Christ’s resurrection, unleashed into this world by the Gospel.

Abraham, exemplifying salvific faith, believed in the God who could make fruitful his own “dead” flesh and the “dead” womb of Sarah (verses 17-19; Genesis 17:15-21). Paul compares this to God’s calling all of Creation out of nothingness. This call is the promise of the Resurrection, as he will make clear at the end of the chapter.

This ascription of righteousness to faith pertains not only to Abraham but also to us his children (verses 23-24), if we live by that same faith. Concretely, this means faith in the God who raises the dead, symbolized in the “dead” bodies of Abraham and Sarah. The God who raises Jesus from the dead is the same God who called all things from nothingness into being.

Following Paul’s lead, early Christians readily related the Resurrection to Creation: the Resurrection of Christ is perceived as the definitive vindication of the created world. For example, slightly after the year 200, Tertullian wrote: “This is the promise He makes even to our flesh, and it has been His will to deposit within us this pledge of His own virtue and power, in order that we may believe that He has, in fact, awakened the universe out of nothing, as if it had been dead, in the obvious sense of its previous non-existence for the purpose of its coming into existence’ (Against Hermogenes 34).

The Creator who called into being things that were not is the same God who is triumphant over death, the death that entered this world by sin. Man’s justification consists, not only in the removal of man’s sins but in the gift of incorruptibility, which conquers death.

We, like Abraham, place our faith in the God who brings life from death, and we are justified through this faith. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, therefore, for our justification, to effect our righteousness (verse 25; 1 Corinthians 15:45).