December 15 – December 22, 2023

Friday. December 15

Matthew 7.1-6: Just as the preceding verses told us not to worry about ourselves, these verses tell us not to worry about others. In neither case are we to take the place of God. This chapter, then, continues the theme of freedom from distraction, so that God receives our entire attention. One will also observe an irony in these verses. Immediately after being told not to “size up” others (6:1-5), we are exhorted to size them up! (6:6).

Psalms 113 (Greek & Latin 112): may be regarded as a companion psalm of the one immediately before it. In structure, the two are identical acrostics, each composed of twenty-two half-lines that begin with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in succession.

More than merely juxtaposed and similarly constructed, however, these two psalms are also joined by a common theme—wisdom, and especially wisdom’s relationship to obedience and the fear of the Lord. Thus, Psalm 112 closed with its famous statement about how the path to wisdom commences: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and all who practice it have a good understanding.” Psalm 113 immediately takes up the challenge, as it were, of this proclamation. “Blessed is the man that fears the Lord,” it says, “he will greatly delight in His commandments.”

Biblical “fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of biblical wisdom, is not a psychological state marked by terror or timidity. Perhaps the correct idea is better conveyed by the word “reverence.” Still, the fear of the Lord is far more than the cultivated sentiment of reverence. It is, rather, a resolved dedication of oneself to the accomplishing of God’s will through the industry of obedience. As the psalm says, it is something to be practiced. The wisdom promised in Holy Scripture is derived from reverent obedience to God. Since this is a motif found here in two consecutive psalms, it merits a more elaborate explanation.

Much of contemporary religion is based on the dichotomy between Law and Gospel, which are usually contrasted to the advantage of the latter. Law, according to this popular distinction, has to do with fear and the performance of duty and is regularly thought of as an inferior, even servile, state. Gospel, on the other hand, is commonly conceived in terms of God’s free gift, conferred without respect to human merit or work, and having as a chief effect man’s deliverance from the burden of Law.

Now, though the foregoing distinction between Law and Gospel is not without foundation in Holy Scripture and is, indeed, useful to clarify many important aspects of theology, it hardly provides an adequate paradigm for the whole of Christian thought and experience. With respect to the “fear of the Lord,” for example, which is a motif common to these two psalms, that distinction between Law and Gospel proves to be quite inadequate. It is not hard to see why. If the fear of the Lord means reverent obedience to His will, the paradigm Law-or-Gospel will almost certainly put this obedience in the former category, Law. Thus, obedience would be something associated with duty, perhaps even servile duty. What, after all, could obedience have to do with Gospel?

Unfortunately, this line of thought is rather common. For instance, one may read modern commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, premised solely on that foregoing dichotomy between Law and Gospel, that treat even the prescriptions of our blessed Lord Himself as simply points of Law, promulgated for the purpose of teaching frail and failing man his need for a Gospel of grace that will deliver him from such Law. That is to say, Jesus gave us these commandments on the Mount precisely that we might fail to obey them! Now this is a preposterous interpretation. If Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can find no place under the heading of Gospel, one is at a loss to say what can.

But the Gospel itself includes a call to a life of obedience (cf. Rom. 6:16; 15:18; 1 Pet. 1:2). In fact, the very act of faith, which is man’s correct response to the Gospel, involves a certain kind of obedience. It is called the hypakoe pisteos—“obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; cf. Acts 6:7). Obedience to God’s will, moreover, is the living out of our faith.

And it is this reverent obedience, called the fear of the Lord, that leads to wisdom. Such is the burden of both these psalms.

The deeper message of these psalms, however, is Christological before it is moral, for our righteousness is ever a sharing in the righteousness of Christ. That is to say, the wise man, who fears the Lord and greatly delights in His commandments, is, in the first place, Jesus the Savior. He it is, described here as generous and just and unshaken, as leaving a seed powerful on the earth, as being had in eternal remembrance.

Saturday, December 16

Matthew 7.7-12: This triple exhortation to prayer contains what may be understood as a kind of regression. By this I mean that the situation or locus of the person praying is pictured as increasingly more distant from God.

First, man is told to “ask.” This command presupposes that he has ready access to God. All he needs to do is ask, because God is at hand. Isaiah tells us to “call upon Him while He is near” (55:6). And the Psalmist boldly asserts, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” 145:18).

The man who receives the exhortation to “ask” is so familiar with the Lord that his prayer is nearly effortless, as it were. He is accustomed to prayer. He prays continually. God is ever at hand and simply waits for him to pray. It is a prayer of familiarity.

Second, man is told to “knock.” Between him and God there is a closed door. The Lord does not seem to be so near. The prayer, therefore, must become more vigorous and insistent. Knocking is a step beyond asking, because a closed door stands in the way. The prayer is not so familiar.

At the same time, the one who knocks at least knows the location of the door. That is to say, he still remembers where the Lord is to be found. He is clear about where to knock. He may not be on familiar terms with the Lord, but he has not lost sight of the right door. His prayer is more distant, but it is no less certain. Like the younger son who strayed far from home in Luke 15, he still knows where the Father lives.

Third, man is told to “seek.” In other words, he is not only not on familiar terms with the Lord, he is not really sure about the location of the door. Such a one is not told to ask, nor does he even know where even to knock. His immediate task is, rather, to seek. His prayer will take the form of a quest. He must first discover the door on which to knock.

Not all men are in the same place with respect to prayer, but all are told to pray, and a like promise attends them all. The difference is in the form of the prayer, not the manner in which God hears the prayer. None of these prayers are refused. To one it will be granted, to another it will be opened, and the third is sure to find.

Men experience God at various distances, but in truth He is nigh unto them all. The differences in prayer are differences among men, not a difference in God, who graciously hears every voice directed to Him, whether by a close friend, an occasional acquaintance, or a distant seeker. The Lord is a God of universal suffrage. He is eager to hear from all of us.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12: Paul continues to speak of his own conscience in the Holy Spirit–“… we speak, not as pleasing men, but God, who tests our hearts. . . . God is witness” (verses 4-5). Paul’s behavior was, in fact, being challenged by his opponents. He was being likened to other itinerant preachers who made their living by spreading new and interesting ideas.

Such itinerant preachers were much common in the ancient world. One such group was the cynics, criticized by Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-112, and therefore somewhat contemporary with Paul) for their “error, impurity, and deception.” All of these charges were directed at Paul himself (verses 3-6). Dio Chrysostom goes on to say that a true philosopher should be “gentle as a nurse.” This is exactly how Paul describes himself (verse 7). In addition, Paul appeals to the memory of the Thessalonians themselves with respect to his recent ministry in their city (verses 1,2,5,9,10).

The Thessalonians could be witness of Paul only up to a point, however. The real Paul they could not see. Inside Paul was the plerophoria effected by the Holy Spirit. This was his “complete assurance,” known only to God, so it is to God Himself that Paul appealed as the Judge of his conscience, no matter what others might think of him.

The idea of living under God’s scrutiny was important to Paul’s psychology. He was persuaded that a man was not defiled by what entered him from without, but only by what came from inside, from the heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). The Apostle rather frequently appeals to God’s inner witnessing (2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9). His mentality seems dominated by the awareness of God’s inner judgment over him.

Sunday, December 17

Luke 1:57-66: Our reading of Luke’s Gospel today brings us to the birth of John the Baptist. In the truest sense, John was a distinctly cultured man. In fact, Luke says a great deal about the roots of culture. John was a Jewish priest by inheritance and blood. His mother was from the tribe of Levi, and of his father we read that he was a priest of “the division of Abijah.” He was the heir of a great spiritual legacy, and very early in life he began to assimilate that inheritance.

How early? According to Luke he was in his sixth month of gestation. Even at that age, however, he had already assimilated enough of his religious inheritance that he leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of the Son of God she carried.

That is to say, even three months before he was born, and without the slightest ability to reflect critically on his existence, he was already a believer. He already had faith, a faith proportionate to his age and condition. He was in possession of an infant’s faith, the only kind of faith of which he was capable. This is why, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised as a member of God’s people.

This infant faith has been essential to the history of the Christian Church, because it is a fact that the great majority of Christians did not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. We baptize the infant members of the Church for exactly the same reason that John the Baptist was circumcised eight days after his birth. That is to say, such children are already believers, just as John the Baptist was a believer.

In the case of John the Baptist, moreover, this faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.

This must be true of all the children that we raise in the Church of God. Through all five of their senses, we instruct them who they are and what they believe. We give them their faith. Because they are already believers, we baptize them; we hand these children their inherited culture. We insert them into salvation history.

Monday, December 18

1 Thessalonians 2:13-20: Paul did not preach his own word (verse 13). He contended, in fact, that the Apostles themselves were relatively unimportant (1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and he insisted that the Gospel was not his to change (Galatians 1:6-9).

The Gospel means “good news,” but not “news” in the same way that the newspaper gives news. It does not simply give a “news flash” about God. On the contrary, the Gospel does something in those that receive it in faith (verse 13; Romans 1:16; Ephesians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25; Hebrews 4:13; John 17:17).

In describing the Gospel as “God’s Word,” Paul and the other New Testament writers were adapting the expression “the Word of the Lord” from Israel’s prophets. Of the 241 times that this expression appears in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to prophetic oracles 221 times.

Like the prophetic oracles that were called “the Word of the Lord,” the Gospel was not preached in order to convey an idea but to get results (1 Kings 17:1; Deuteronomy 8:3; Isaiah 55:10-11), to affect history (Jeremiah 5:14; 23:29; Ezekiel 11:13). God’s Word proclaimed in the new dispensation of grace should not be weaker than God’s word spoken in the Old Testament. Hence, Paul thought it important to distinguish man’s word from God’s.

Daniel 10: This vision comes to Daniel, he tells us, “in the third year of Cyrus,” and it introduces the geopolitical crisis in Babylon at this emperor’s merger of the Medes and the Persians. Although Cyrus ruled over the Persians from 559 BC, the present reference probably means his reign over the joint kingdoms, beginning in 549. The “third year” is roughly 546.

In order to gain this ascendancy over the region, Cyrus had accepted the help of the Babylonians, who apparently did not reflect that a victorious Cyrus would soon prove to be a greater threat to them than the Medes had ever been. When their new danger did finally dawn on the Babylonians, they promptly formed a defensive pact with several countries, including Lydia, a kingdom situated in the west of the large peninsula that we now call Turkey. Before challenging Babylon, therefore, Cyrus determined it would be better to conquer Babylon’s ally, Lydia. Accordingly, the king of Lydia, Croesus, having received assurances of military help from Egypt and Sparta, prepared to move east against Cyrus. Thus, the Greeks were induced to become part of the struggles within the Fertile Crescent. Daniel, as we perceive in today’s reading, was given a terrifying vision of what would, in due course, ensue.

For the Jews, nonetheless, the reign of Cyrus was a great blessing. When he conquered Babylon in 539, his almost first act was to end their captivity and order the construction of the Second Temple.

Tuesday, December 19

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs “strengthen” and “encourage” (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).

Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in “will and testament”). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).

In the present text Paul relates this “strengthening” to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea of how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: “The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other.”

According to Paul’s thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God’s “fellow laborer,” because he is doing God’s work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.

We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.

Wednesday, December 20

1 Thessalonians 4.1-2: Paul prays that the Thessalonians will abound more and more (verses 1-2). This idea of growth is frequent in Paul, for whom the Christian condition of justification is less a “state” than the dynamic possibility of growth in the Holy Spirit. The word “more” (mallon) appears seven times in Romans, eight times in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, five times in Philippians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and twice in the tiny letter to Philemon.

This frequency of a simple adverb suggests something of how Paul experienced the life in Christ. It had no limits, neither in knowledge nor in love. He does not, therefore, attempt to “define” a disciple of Christ, because to “define” means to “determine the limits of.” Belonging to Christ is limitless, because Christ Himself is limitless.

For this reason St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse, comparing the soul to fertile soil: “For as the earth ought to bear not only what is so upon it, so too the soul ought not to stop at those things that have been inculcated, but to go beyond them.”

The image of the seed sown on the earth is a famous one, of course. The Lord’s parable of the sower is only one of its uses. The early Christian parishes had a strong sense of identity based on a negative attitude towards the society in which they lived. They realized that what Jesus meant was radically opposed to what the world stood for, and that the call to holiness, an essential feature of the life in Christ, required from them a radical break with their pagan past. Often enough this also meant, in practice, a break with their pagan friends (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Thus, the local Christians congregations served as communities of support, because believers could find with one another a very real solidarity in those convictions that separated them from other people. We find in early Christian literature ample evidence these Christians felt a great gulf between “them” and “us.” The New Testament and other primitive Christian literature leave no doubt that the specifics of Christian existence were founded on a position of contrast with, and opposition to, the “world.”

Indeed, today’s reading uses a technical expression to designate non-Christians, hoi exso, “those outside” (verse 12). This was evidently a common term among the early believers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; Mark 4:11; cf. also Titus 2:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:7).

Christians at that period were enormously aware of their minority status among non-Christians, and they were careful how they impressed those non-Christians (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:32-33; Matthew 5:16).

The picture that emerges of the Christian parishes during that early period is one of communities of sobriety, hard work, and a closely knit bond of fraternal love (philadelphia). In today’s reading Paul stresses minding one’s own business, and doing one’s own job becomingly and unobtrusively. There is no question of evangelizing one’s neighbor’s by aggressive approach or slick advertising. In the words of Tertullian, Non magna loquimur, sed vivimus—“We don’t talk big, but we live.”

Thursday, December 21

Psalms 120 (Greek & Latin 119): This is the first of fifteen consecutive psalms known as the “songs of ascent.” Though the origin of the expression is not entirely certain, a very probable interpretation takes this title to mean that these particular psalms were chanted by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near and began to ascend the heights on which the Holy City is settled. Truly, quite a number of lines in these psalms are readily understood in such a context. In any case, these fifteen form a distinct collection within the Psalter.

It requires little or no imagination to think of the early Church praying this psalm in the upper room: : “To the Lord I called in my distress, and He answered me. O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and from a deceitful tongue.”

Lies and deception lay all about the Church at that time. Already, for instance, the rumor was started that the disciples had stolen the dead body of Jesus from the grave while the soldiers slept (cf. Matt. 28:11–15). And as for the body of believers, already “we know that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22). But soon would arrive that Holy Spirit to confront their accusers and “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).

Meanwhile the Church answers her calumniators in prayer: “What further would you have, or what more be given you, a deceitful tongue? The warrior’s sharp arrows, with coals of desolation? Ah me, that my sojourn (paroikia) is prolonged, and I have made my home among the tents of Kedar. So much the sojourner (paroikesen) is my soul. Peaceful, I spoke peace to those who hated me. When I addressed them, they warred against me without cause.”

The poetic imagery of these lines is dense. “The warrior’s sharp arrows, with coals of desolation” probably means the incendiary arrows that destroy civilizations. The “tents of Kedar” refers to a warlike tribe in the Arabian desert and should be taken as a metaphor for surrounding hostility.

Used for many centuries by pilgrims marching to Jerusalem, this is a psalm about a “sojourn.” Indeed, the word for “sojourn” in this psalm, paroikia, is the root of our English word “parish,” meaning a congregation of pilgrims. It is the Church that is in exile, on pilgrimage, here in this world, encompassed by calumny and malice.

The First Epistle of Peter may serve as a kind of commentary on Psalm 120. Indeed, St. Peter actually uses the word “sojourn” with reference to the Church; “conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here [or “sojourn” (paroikiaI); (1 Pet. 1:17), he exhorts “the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1).

Their situation is exactly that of our psalm. Peter calls them “sojourners (paroicous) and pilgrims” (2:11). He also mentions that these pilgrims of the Dispersion are being tempted, “grieved by various trials” (1:6), constantly reproached by those outside as evildoers (2:12, 20; 3:16; 4:14, 16). But by doing good, Peter assures them, they will “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). For their model, he holds out to them the suffering of Christ, “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (2:23). “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to him” (4:19).

Friday, December 22

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: In this passage 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.

Psalms 122 (Greek & Latin 121): Just as the previous psalm “of ascent” raised our eyes to those mountains from which our help shall come, the present psalm shows us that Holy City on the top thereof, the perfecting goal of our pilgrimage: “I was elated when they said to me, ‘We shall go unto the house of the Lord!’ In your very courts our feet were standing, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem! fashioned as a city, the abode of shared communion. For unto her have the tribes ascended, the tribes of the Lord, as a testimony unto Israel, to confess the Name of the Lord! For in her were set the thrones for judgment, thrones over the house of David. Oh, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and the prosperity of those who love you. May there be peace in your power, and prosperity in your towers of strength. For the sake of my brethren and my loved ones, I have discoursed of your peace. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I have been zealous for your good.”

This is a psalm about Jerusalem, obviously, but what Jerusalem? Surely not any city we may find on a map. And certainly not that rebellious city, “not willing” to repent, that killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her (Matt. 23:37). Most emphatically not that city “where also our Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8). Nor, indeed, that city where the eagles gathered together, as around a carcass, nor one stone thereof was left upon another (Matt. 24:2, 28).

Jerusalem in Psalm 122 is, rather, the city on high of which it was written, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). It is the city concerning which it is said to us: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). It is the city whose name is emblazoned on our brows, “the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God” (Rev. 3:12).

But if this Jerusalem is, firstly, the Church in heaven, it is also the Church on earth, and these two are the one reality that our psalm calls “the abode of shared communion.” Moreover, just as all things are defined by relation to the purposes for which they exist, the Church on earth receives her very identity from the Church in heaven. She exists on earth only with a view to heaven; heaven alone holds the key to her being, for God already “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Our psalm captures both these aspects of Jerusalem. She is the goal of those tribes ascending unto the house of the Lord and, even now, the courts where our feet are standing.

How, then, should we understand this “peace of Jerusalem” for which we pray? Again, two senses seem intended. The most obvious is to understand Jerusalem as the beneficiary of this peace, meaning “pray that Jerusalem will have peace,” pray that the Church on earth will enjoy tranquility, in which to serve God with an undisturbed and quiet mind. Surely this is an appropriate prayer, and the traditional texts of our worship abound with examples of it. Thus, we pray for “the peace of the whole world, for the good estate of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all men.”