January 12 – January 19, 2024

Friday, January 12

Hebrews 4.11-16: The author speaks of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.

There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bare our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.

Thus, we do not call the Bible into question. The Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive, and the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God’s word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God’s all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there.

The chief point our author wants to make here, with respect to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (2:17-18).

This author insists that this is kind of priest we need: He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”

Psalms 30 (Greek & Latin 29): This psalm bears a curious title that tells us something interesting of this psalm’s use in ancient Judaism: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the House of David.”

First, it is ascribed to King David, nor is it difficult to think of him praying this psalm of thanksgiving for the Lord’s deliverance. After all, David came to the throne of Israel after years of oppression and exile under Saul, and these are the sentiments we would expect on his being delivered from those hard times.

Second, however, besides its individual and personal use in the case of David, this psalm was later sung as part of a communal, liturgical festival celebrated every year—the Dedication (Hanukkah) of the temple. This was a winter feast (cf. John 10:22) dating from 165 B.C., and Jews around the world continue to celebrate it even today, long after their temple has disappeared from history.

This twofold historical use of our psalm already suggests more than one layer of meaning. First, there is the remembrance of David’s years of oppression and exile, followed by a final deliverance: “I will extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me.”

But the second half of the title, which tells us of its use at the feast of Hanukkah, indicates its communal use. David’s personal sentiments of gratitude and praise to the redeeming God became incorporated into Israel’s restoration to her temple after years of oppression and strife. This history is narrated in chapters 1—4 of 1 Maccabees. When Antiochus Epiphanes IV came to the throne of Syria in September of 175 B.C., it was the beginning of very hard times for the Chosen People. Their oppression by this ruthless overlord included even the desecration of the temple. At the end of this decade of terror (175–165), when Judas Maccabaeus rededicated the temple at Jerusalem, Israel felt it could now, with unburdened heart, make its own the ancient sentiments of David: “I will extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me.”

Saturday, January 13

Hebrews 5.1-14: It is possible that the earliest extant version of the Agony in the Garden seems to come, not from the Gospels, but from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is here that we read of Jesus, “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He were a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:7-8).

In this precious text, the reference to ”vehement cries and tears” explains how the early believers knew about this event. There were witnesses to it, some of them only “a little farther” off (Matthew 26:39), “about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41). These disciples could hear those “vehement cries,” and they were able to see his kneeling posture (Mark 14:35).

All this happened, says Hebrews, “in the days of His flesh,” an expression indicating Jesus’ condition of human weakness, willingly assumed so “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

The object of Jesus’ “prayers and supplications,” Hebrews tells us, was deliverance from death. This feature of His prayers corresponds to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus prays that He be spared the “cup” of His coming sufferings (Matthew 26:39,42) and that “the hour might pass from Him” (Mark 14:35).

It was in this hour, says Hebrews, that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which He suffered,” a parallel to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus, in His Agony, submits His own will obediently to that of His Father (Matthew 26:39,42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Similarly, the Apostle Paul preserves part of a hymn that speaks of Jesus’ obedience unto death, “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

These prayers and supplications of Jesus were themselves sacrificial, because Hebrews says that he “offered” them (prosenegkas). They are priestly prayers. That is to say, Jesus’ sacrifice has even now begun. The Lord’s Passion is a seamless whole. Already we perceive in His prayers and supplications the true essence of sacrifice, which is the inner oblation of oneself to God.

The Book of Hebrews insists, furthermore, that these “prayers and supplications” of Jesus were heard on high, precisely because of “His godly fear,” which is to say His godly piety and reverence (evlabeia; reverential in the Vulgate). Jesus’ obedient reverence is exactly what we find in the Gospel accounts of the Agony.

In what sense, then, was Jesus “heard” when he offered these prayers and supplications? Properly to answer this question, it is useful to remember a principle of all godly petition: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Now Jesus prayed explicitly according to God’s will; indeed, it was the very essence of His prayer. Therefore, His prayer was heard according to God’s will. He was not delivered from death in the sense that He avoided it, but in the sense that He conquered it, that He was victorious over death, that in His own death He trampled down death forever.

This is to say that Jesus’ resurrection and glorification were the Father’s response to His prayer in the Agony. It was in answer to this prayer, “Thy will be done,” that Jesus, “having been perfected, . . . became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). This was God’s will, the will that Jesus prayed would be done. He was thus “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10). It was because Jesus became obedient unto death that “God also has highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). The Paschal victory over death was the Father’s reply to the prayers and supplications offered by the true High Priest in the days of His flesh.

Sunday, January 14

Matthew 8:28-34: The question asked in the previous story (“Who is this?”) is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul. It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

Psalms 38 (Greek & Latin 37): With its heavy emphasis on sin and suffering, this is one of the rougher parts of the Psalter, and its thematic conjunction of sin and suffering is also the manifest key to its meaning.

Suffering and death enter the world with sin. To humanity’s first sinners the Lord said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow,” and “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Gen. 3:16, 17). So close is the Bible’s joining of suffering to sin that some biblical characters (such as Job’s friends and the questioning disciples in John 9:2) entertained the erroneous notion that each instance of suffering was brought about by certain specific sins.

Like Psalm 6, the present psalm commences with a prayer for deliverance from divine anger: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.” Already the poet feels overwhelming pain which he describes, whether literally or by way of metaphor, in the most physical terms: “Your arrows [thunder bolts?] pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down.” What he suffers comes from sin and the response of the divine wrath, from which he begs to be delivered: “There is no soundness in my flesh, because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin.” The equation: sin = wrath of God.

Whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—or all of them together—what we suffer in this life are the incursions of death, and death is simply sin becoming incarnate and dwelling among us, for “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

Such is the essential conviction of our prayer in this psalm: “For my iniquities are gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds are foul and festering because of my folly.”

The proper response to sin and suffering? Confession of sins and the sustained cultivation of repentance, for “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Thus we pray in this psalm: “For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin.” Notwithstanding a widespread heresy that says otherwise, repentance is not something done once, and all finished; according to one of the last petitions of the litany, it is something to be perfected until the end of our lives. This sorrow for sin, says our psalm, is continual, ongoing. Every suffering we are given in this life is a renewed call to repentance. Every pain is, as it were, the accusing finger of Nathan: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).

Psalm 38 is not the happiest of psalms, but it is exceedingly salubrious to the spirit. If its message can be summed up in one line, that line may well be David’s response to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” These words make all the difference, because, as another psalm insists, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Over and over the tax collector “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).

Monday, January 15

Hebrews 6.9-20: Christians here are exhorted to “show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end.” Leaving our consideration of hope to the next section of this work, two words here deserve special attention:

First, “diligence”—spoude. This word, which has the sense of earnestness and seriousness, also conveys some sense of speed and promptness. It was with spoude that Mary arose, after her encounter with the Angel Gabriel, and hastened south to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps it should be translated, in many New Testament texts, as “alacrity.”

In the present context, spoude is contrasted with sluggishness. The author of Hebrews goes on to urge “that you do not become sluggish.”

St. Paul regarded this alacrity as a proper mark of Christian leadership (Romans 12:8). The last thing the Christian people need is a sluggish leader.

Understandably, spoude often appears in the Bible’s exhortatory sections. Thus, when St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about certain problems in their congregation, he did so with spoude (2 Corinthians 7:12). And when the Corinthians received that admonition, they also exercised spoude (7:11).

This alacrity, which the New Testament clearly perceives as a proper mark of the Christian life, is often used in connection with deeds of charity and kindness. Paul wrote to the Romans about “not lagging in spoude (Romans 12:11).

Thus, too, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he used this noun three times: “But as you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all spoude, and in your love for us—that you abound in this grace also. I speak not by commandment, but through spoude for others I am testing the sincerity of your love” (8:7-8). Finally, in respect to this collection, Paul wrote, “But thanks to God who has put the same spoude for you into the heart of Titus” (8:16).

Second, our text speaks of “full assurance”—plerophoria. This is one of the most important words descriptive of Christian consciousness. It appears a second time in this work: “let us draw near with a true heart in plerophoria of faith” (10:22).

The importance of this expression is suggested by the fact that it appears within the first five verses of the earliest extant work of Christian literature: “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in plerophoria polle” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). In this text we observe that this “full assurance” is related to the Holy Spirit. This expression descriptive of Christian knowledge, plerophoria polle is contrasted with “in word only.” That is to say, this “complete certainty” in the Holy Spirit is not described as information about but as knowledge of. It is not merely referential; it is real, not only notional. It is not merely nominal (“in word only”). It consists, not simply in discerning the meaning of the words proclaimed, but in perceiving the truth of that meaning. It is not simply an assent to what is declared, but the reality of what is perceived. Plerophoria polle is the knowledge of the truth of the gospel.

A later text in the Pauline corpus perhaps renders this meaning of “complete certainty” even clearer. In Colossians 2:2 the apostle speaks of our attaining to “all wealth of the plerophoria of the understanding, the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Tuesday, January 16

Genesis 14 & Psalms 110: The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at least in brief, for most of its “persons of the drama.” The clear exception is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in Genesis 14 and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life”
(Hebrews 7:3). We know only a few things about him.

We do know thatMelchizedek was a king. “Salem,” the city of his kingship, was an old name for Jerusalem (Psalm 76[75]:2). Indeed, the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, took Melchizedek to be the founder (ho protos ktisas) of the holy city (The Jewish War 6.438). Regarding Melchizedek as the king who founded the city of Jerusalem, we may discern a noteworthy
correspondence he shares with two other figures in whom Plutarch (Parallel Lives 1.2) perceived a match: Romulus, who “founded Rome” (ektise ten Romen), and Theseus, “who built up Athens” (synoikise tas Athenas). Pliny’s description of those two urban organizers as “of
unknown and obscure origins” (anegguo kai skotio genomenoi) corresponds to the portrayal of Melchizedek, the founder of Jerusalem, who was “without father, without mother, without genealogy.”

Speculating on the etymology of Melchizedek’s name (melekhassedeq), Josephus calls him a “righteous king” (basileus dikaios) (Antiquities 1.10.2). Exploiting the resemblance of the name “Salem” to the Hebrew word for “peace,” shalom, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls Melchizedek “king of peace.” Like Josephus, he sees etymological
symbolism in Melchizedek’s own name, calling him “king of righteousness” (basileus dikaiosynes) (7:2).

We also know that Melchizedek was “the priest of God Most High.” In fact, he is the first man to whom Holy Scripture gives the title “priest” (kohen), and it is Melchizedek’s priesthood that receives the greater attention in the Bible. For example, while the Book of Psalms speaks of the Messiah’s kingship as derived from David (Psalm 78[77]:70; 89[88]:3–4, 20, 39, 45; 110[109]:1–3), the Messiah’s priesthood is said to be “according to the order of Melchizedek” (110[109]:4).

Melchizedek was “the first to serve as priest to God” (ierasato to Theo protos), Josephus wrote, and long before Solomon built a temple in worship at Jerusalem, Melchizedek had already done so (to hieron protos deimamenos). Indeed, Josephus traces the very name of Jerusalem (in Greek Hierosolyma) to the “priest of Salem” (hierus Salem) (The Jewish War 6.438).

Wednesday, January 17

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.

Hebrews 7.1-10: Following the lead of Psalm 110 (109), the author of Hebrews sees in the priesthood of Melchizedek the “order” (taxsis) of the definitive priesthood of Christ the Lord (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17). The Bible’s very
silence with respect to the death of that ancient priest of Salem is taken as a prefiguration of the “unchangeable priesthood” (7:24) of God’s Son, to whom Melchizedek was “made like” (7:3). The latter was a living prophecy of the definitive Priest who “has become a surety of a better covenant” (7:22).

Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, just as Abraham’s children gave tithes to the Levitical priests (7:8–10). That detail argues for the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek” over the “order of Aaron” (7:11).

Melchizedek blessed Abraham, saying: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19–20). This priestly blessing too indicates the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek,” inasmuch as “the lesser is blessed by the better” (Hebrews 7:7).

Psalms 44 (Greek & Latin 43): The prayer begins, however, with an appeal to Tradition: “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us.” Such an appeal to the lessons of history is, of course, standard in the Bible, for the biblical God is, first and last, “the God of our fathers.” Thus, the message of Genesis has to do with God’s fidelity to Israel’s patriarchs, while Exodus tells of Israel’s redemption by that same patriarchal God. Other historical books of the Bible narrate the continued faithfulness of His promises to an unfaithful people. The prophetic literature, likewise, constantly looks back to God’s redemptive work throughout Israel’s history, as both paradigm and prophecy of what He will do for His people in the future.

A similar note is sounded strongly in the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, is forever appealing to the moral lessons of history, that complex of disciplines and standards learned by experience, prescribed by the authority of Tradition and handed down through succeeding generations. In this case too, biblical religion is essentially an inherited religion, and its Lord is “the God of our fathers.”

Thursday, January 18

Matthew 9.18-26: From this point on, Matthew breaks away from the Markan sequence that he has been following. This sequence will be picked up again in Matthew 12. Matthew’s version of this double miracle, the seventh and eighth in the current ten miracles, involves of significant shortening of the 22 verses with which Mark 5 tells the story. The expression “from that hour” in Matthew 9:22, which is not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, serves to tie the story back to the account of the centurion’s servant in 8:13. Matthew is also the only one of the evangelists to mention the flute players already assembling for the funeral of Jairus’s daughter. The raising of the little girl is to be contrasted with the killing of the first-born, which was the tenth of the Mosaic plagues.

Hebrews 7:11-28: Some eight centuries after Melchizedek, David became his successor on the throne of Jerusalem. David certainly did have begats, and much was written of his ancestry, as well as his death.

David knew, however, that an eternal promise was attached to the throne on which he sat. God had sworn with an oath that the royal house of David would last forever. The Lord had promised that, as long as the sun and moon endure, so long would last the throne of David. In a way that David himself could not understand, David’s Son would be the Son of God: “I will be to Him a Father,? and He shall be to Me a Son” (2 Samuel 7:14; Hebrews 1:5).

Thus, in the hymn used for the enthronement of the Davidic kings, reference was made to Melchizedek, that everlasting king who had neither beginning of days nor end of life: “The Lord has sworn / And will not repent, / “You are a priest forever / According to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110 [109]:4; Hebrews 5:6; 7:17,21).

In an argument with the scholars of Holy Scripture, Jesus cited this psalm to indicate the greater depth of its meaning: “Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, / Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Therefore David himself calls Him “Lord”; how is He then his Son?’” (Mark 12:35-37). This exegetical question, which was quite lost on those to whom Jesus addressed it, prompted Christians to examine that psalm in the full light of Christ’s full self-revelation. As they grasped the point of the question, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).

The Christian understanding of this psalm is of a piece with the Christian understanding of Genesis 13: As the Son of David, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy conveyed in the historical appearance of Melchizedek. He is eternally the king and high priest, God’s very Son, seated at His right hand and living forever. He is the real Melchizedek, not a figure from the past but the everlasting Mediator between God and man.

Friday, January 19

Matthew 9.27-34: The healing of two blind men in these verses parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. This earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34.

The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.” The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos).

It is also worth mentioning that this cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, is parallel to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness. The account of the ten miracles terminates with the Pharaoh-like hardness of heart on the part of Jesus’ enemies (9:34).

Hebrews 8.1-13: Rather early in Christian thought, what Jesus had to say about the coming destruction of the temple prompted Christians to think more deeply about the transitory nature of any shrine or sanctuary that men might build. In their reflections on this point, they reviewed the biblical teaching that even the tabernacle constructed by Moses had been modeled on a heavenly type revealed to the prophet on Mount Sinai. That sanctuary on high—in the very heavens to which Jesus had ascended—was the authentic model.

These early theological reflections form much of the argument made in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as we see in the present text. Our author describes the Mosaic tabernacle as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed.” This earthly copy he contrasts with “the sanctuary and . . . the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”

The superiority of the Christian dispensation, for the author of Hebrews, has partly to do with its direct relationship to the worship offered directly before God’s heavenly throne. He speaks in this text of Jesus “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”

That is to say, the actual substance of the Christian religion is already radically complete and accomplished. Even while its adherents are still on pilgrimage in this world, its defining element is already “perfect.” That is to say, what is most essential to the Christian religion is already accomplished: Jesus has already entered “heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.”

Our text ends with a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Indeed, it is the longest Old Testament quotation found in the New Testament.

By using the expression “new covenant” at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:25), Jesus implicitly invited Christians to consult Jeremiah’s description of it. In addition to this long quotation in Hebrews, the passage from Jeremiah was referenced by St. Paul, who wrote that God “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul seems to have had this Jeremian text in mind when he wrote: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men— clearly an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:2).