December 22 – December 29, 2023

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.”

Saturday, December 23

Luke3.21-38: In Luke’s version Jesus’ baptism is presented, not as a theophanic event, revelatory to everybody, but as a prayerful encounter of Jesus with his Father. Even John the Baptist is removed from this account. If you read closely, you observe Luke does not say that Jesus was baptized by John. On the contrary, Luke first tells John’s arrest by Herod, and only then does he go on to describe Jesus’ baptism.

We should first remark that Luke is the only evangelist to mention that Jesus was praying at the time of his baptism. Indeed, this is Luke’s first reference to the prayer of Jesus. That is to say, the Lord’s prayer on that occasion is something to which Luke deliberately intends to direct our attention.

The words conveyed by the “voice from heaven” provide us with both the sum and the setting of everything the Father has to say to His Son. The Father’s “command,” His entoleI, is embraced in the double affirmation, “You are My beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” These words express, not only the identity of Jesus, but also the salvific will of the Father with respect to His Son’s destiny.

So, when the Father addresses him as “beloved Son” and declares Himself “well pleased,” Jesus is not hearing something new, as it were, a reality hitherto unsuspected. On the contrary, these expressions resonate deeply in his mind and consciousness, taking narrative shape through certain biblical references with which he was familiar from his years of youthful study in the synagogue. Much earlier in Jesus’ life, according to Luke, Jesus confessed his responsibility to his Father: “Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:49)

In Luke’s scene of Jesus’ baptism we are presented with the theandric conscience of Christ, praying to his Father and being addressed by his Father. He experiences the call and command of his Father in a personal encounter. Jesus is changed by this encounter. He is different by reason of what he experienced in his baptism. A revelation has taken place in this meeting with his Father. The Holy Spirit come upon him and drives him into the wilderness for another encounter, his scheduled meeting with Satan.

Sunday, December 24

Hebrews 1.1-14: On this day we begin our annual reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which we will continue into the Christmas season and beyond. In the assigned reading we are introduced to the association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7).

This perspective of the prologue of Hebrews is identical to that of the parable of the vine growers, which is found in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. In both cases the sending of the Son comes as the climax of a lengthy series of diverse missions dispatched to the vineyard. The former sending of the “prophets” in Hebrews corresponds to the repeated efforts of the Lord of the vineyard to gain the attention of the vine growers, who rejected the messengers, “beating some and killing some” (Mark 12:5).

In both places, there is an emphasis on how often God made those overtures. The first three words in Hebrews, polymeros kai polytropos, are better rendered with some attention to the repeated prefix poly-, which indicates “many.” The “at many times and in many ways” of the English Standard Version accomplishes this. The sense of repetition is also found in the Gospel parable. Several servants are sent, indeed “many” (pollous—Mark 12:5), even “more than the first” (pleionas ton proton—Matthew 21:36).

In this historical sequence, the Son comes “last” (eschatos). Mark’s version (12:6) reads, “Last of all He sent His beloved Son” (hyion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton). Hebrews, likewise, says that God “has in these last days (ep’ eschatou ton hemeron touton) spoken to us by a Son [en hyio].” Thus, the sending of the Son, both in the Gospel parable and in Hebrews, is God’s eschatological act (cf. also Galatians 4:4), bringing Old Testament history to a dramatic climax in the Son’s redemptive Death and Resurrection.

This historical approach to Christology is important. Even before speaking of the eternity of God’s Son (“the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person”), the author first relates that Son to the message conveyed “in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.” The Son of God proclaimed in this work is also a human being. More specifically, in fact, He is a Jew. This Son not only became man; He also became a Jew. His experience as a human being—all those things identified as “the days of his flesh” (5:7)—was specifically Jewish. God’s Son assumed our humanity in a particular race and took on the history of that race. He came to the earth and learned the ways of men by becoming part of Jewish history.

Monday, December 25

Hebrews 2.1-18: In these verses we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.

According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.

The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means 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.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.

This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, 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.”

According to this perspective, Christ is no divine 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.”

According to this interpretation of Psalm 8, “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” That is to say, God’s Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh, and this is how the human race was redeemed.

Tuesday, December 26

Acts 6.8—7.60: Generations of preachers have employed no little ingenuity, and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence, to expound the theological reasons
for celebrating St. Stephen’s Day so close to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects that “the feast of Stephen” may have been celebrated before anyone thought of celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen, that is to say, got into the liturgical calendar first.

Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of Holy Week and the paschal cycle itself, it is possible that the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.

We know, first of all, that very early the dates of the martyrs’ deaths were commemorated annually in their local churches. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, from Smyrna in AD 156, is our earliest explicit witness to this custom, but it seems already to have been traditional. Stephen, the first martyr after the death of Jesus, was venerated in the earliest church, Jerusalem, from which all other Christian churches derived their liturgical precedents.

Furthermore, primitive chronological collections affirm that the martyrdom of St. Stephen occurred on December 26 in the very year of our Redemption, and this was arguably the view of Eusebius of Caesarea. In short, then, when good King Wenceslaus, centuries later, “looked out on the feast of Stephen,” he was observing a commemoration that Christians have observed, literally, from the very beginning.

In Luke’s description of Stephen’s martyrdom, several features are worthy of remark. First, like the Savior (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), Stephen is executed
outside the city wall (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).

Second, and also as a feature of considerable irony, it is in this scene that St. Paul is first introduced in the Acts of the Apostles (7:58). This introduction of the Apostle to the Gentiles, 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).
Third, there is a powerful emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It was early said that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3, 5), but the statement is repeated once again in the context of his death (7:55). This emphasis, which relates Stephen’s death to the pentecostal outpouring, reflects the conviction of the early Church that martyrdom is the supreme charism of the Christian life, the final and crowning gift of the Holy Spirit that definitively seals and consecrates the testimony, the martyria, of the Church and the believer. We meet this conviction somewhat later in The Martyrdom of Polycarp and in the earliest treatises on martyrdom by the Christian apologists.

Lastly, there is a dramatic change in Stephen’s tone. Having bitterly denounced the Jews in his testimony before the Sanhedrin (7:51–53), Stephen finishes his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors (7:59–60). Luke thus takes great care to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (Luke 23:34, 46), as Irenaeus of Lyons early noted (Against the Heresies 3.12.13).

Wednesday, December 27

John, the Beloved Disciple: It is often remarked that the omission of the Transfiguration account from the Fourth Gospel is properly explained by the fact that Jesus always appears transfigured in that Gospel. In its every scene, including the Passion narrative, Jesus is suffused with the radiance of the divine light. “We beheld His glory,” says St. John in the prologue, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (1:14).

That prologue, which sets the theme for the entire story, is peculiar to John, whose Gospel otherwise adheres to the exact time span covered by the earliest apostolic preaching, namely, “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21–22). Adherence to this same primitive time frame is also characteristic of the message of Peter and Paul (10:36–42; 13:23–31), as well as the earliest of the Gospels, Mark. So too John, except for his prologue.
Matthew and Luke had expanded that original time frame by adding
the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy.

John’s prologue, however, escapes the confines of time altogether, rising to God’s eternity, where “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Only then does this Gospel begin to speak of the ministry of John the Baptist (1:6, 15).

The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel, then, is the eternal Word, in whom “was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Becoming flesh and dwelling among us (1:14), He is the living revelation of God on this earth. Even though “no one has seen God at any time,” John says, “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1:18).

These themes will appear again in the Lord’s Last Supper discourse and the long intercession that He prays at the end of it. There will He speak of His being “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6) and refer to the glory that He had with the Father before the world began (17:5, 24).

John’s contemplative gaze at the glory of God on the face of Jesus also determines other features of his Gospel. We observe, for instance, his treatment of Jesus’ miracles. Although his narrative very intentionally
includes fewer of these than do the other Gospels (20:30; 21:25), John provides them greater theological elaboration.

John limits the number of recorded miracles, which he calls “signs,” to the sacred figure seven. Leading to the commitment of faith, these seven signs commence with the fine wine of the wedding feast: “This beginning [arche, the same word as in 1:1] of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11, emphasis added). The second sign John identifies as the curing of the nobleman’s son (4:46–54); as in the first case, the man himself “believed, and his whole household” (4:53, emphasis added). Next comes the curing of the paralytic at the pool (5:1–15), followed by the miracle of the bread (6:1–14), the walking on the water (6:15–21), and the healing of the man born blind (9:1–41). The final and culminating sign
is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1–44).

John’s recording of these revelatory signs is accompanied by theological
comments on their significance, either in the detailed conversations of the narrative itself (as in the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the blind man) or by the Lord’s own further elaboration (as in the Bread of Life discourse). Thus, each of these events in the Lord’s life and ministry becomes a window through which we perceive the divine glory, and Jesus is transfigured with light through the whole narrative. In addition, two lengthy conversations, one with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the other with the Samaritan woman (4:5–42), sound the depths of the revelation that takes place in the narrative.

At the end of the seven signs, John summarizes the tragedy of the unbelief with which the enemies of Jesus responded to His revelation (12:37–41). This unbelief leads immediately to the Lord’s Passion, which is introduced by the great Last Supper discourse.

In every scene, then, from the Lord’s appearance at John’s baptismal site all the way through the Lord’s death and Resurrection, the divine light appears among men. John records all these things that we readers too may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).

Thursday, 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 Guguˆ 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-GogI, “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.

Friday, December 29

Matthew 25.1-13: The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times, the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).

Revelation 21.1-8: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.

In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.