I Never Said There Would Be No Math Questions.
The Third Day of the Greater Antiphons.*
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Judges 13: 2-7, 24-25.
• Psalm 71: 3-6, 16-17.
• Luke 1: 5-25.
Lessons from the dominica,** according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Corinthians 4: 1-5.
• Psalm 144: 18, 21.
• Luke 3: 1-6.
The Thirty-First Monday after Pentecost, the Fifth of Philip's Fast; and, the Feast of the Holy Martyr Boniface.***
Lessons from the pentecostarion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• James 2: 14-26.
• Mark 9: 42—10: 1.
9:32 AM 12/19/2016 — Those of you with really good memories may remember some of these thoughts from back on the Feast of the Saint Luke.
Tuesday last, in our discussion of one of our Lord's parables, I told you that you didn't need a secret decoder ring to figure them out. Well, today you do need your secret decoder ring, and you should set it to the number seventy. I'll try to explain why as best I can…
The story of Zechariah learning of the impending pregnancy of his heretofore barren wife is one of those familiar pre-Christmas yarns that we think we all know: the arrival of the Baptist is announced to him by an angel and, because he expresses incredulity at the idea, he's punished with the loss of his voice; but, these are so much more than just straight-forward facts. There is a mystical component to Luke's Gospel that is overlooked, I think, by even the most erudite Scripture scholars, reflecting Luke's own background. We tend to look toward John's narrative as the mystical Gospel, because it deals not such much with fact as with theology and spirituality, and it shines forth even in the most pedestrian of translations. But Luke's Gospel is so sublime in it's mystical elements, most of the people who have translated it probably didn't even understand themselves what they were reading. For sure, it's probably the most beautifully written piece of prose in the Bible, laid out in the most perfectly metered Greek ever put to paper, all of which is completely lost when translated.
You've heard the cliché, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Well, it was never more true than in the Gospel of Saint Luke; after all, he was a Greek, born to Greek parents in Antioch in Syria, baptized a Christian while still a very young man, probably around AD 40. By the year 44 he had become acquainted with the Apostle Paul and, because he himself was not a Jew, he appreciated Paul's efforts to champion the rights of Gentile Christians to the Church in Jerusalem. His pagan origin and frequent travels outside the Jewish world of Palestine brushed away the racial prejudices that sometimes show through in the Hebrew writings of Matthew.
He did not know our Lord personally, and therefore was not an apostle; the events he writes about he learned from Peter and Paul, both of whom he knew well, and wrote his Gospel at Peter's direction. Of all the evangelists he was the most educated, not only trained thoroughly in the Greek classics, but also in medicine, and it comes out in his narrative in unique ways: he's keen and observant, always attuned to any kind of human suffering, always ready to forgive but very intolerant of quacks and hypocrites; and, of all the Gospels, his frequently gives us the psychological context of the events he's describing to us, often telling us how people reacted to things Jesus said and did rather than just relating the events, even sometimes speculating about their inward dispositions. How many times have we read Luke telling us something like, “Whereupon the Pharisees and scribes fell to reasoning thus, 'Who can this be, that he talks so blasphemously?'” (Luke 5: 21 Knox). Now, how could Luke possibly know what reasoning was going on in the mind of a Pharisee? Because he's a psychiatrist. He knows what makes people tick.
But Luke is also a convert, which means he knows the faith better than anyone; and, even though he was not raised with the Hebrew Scriptures, he's taken the trouble to learn them from Saint Paul inside and out, and this is exactly what we miss when we read him in a translation; because, this Gospel account of Zechariah receiving the news of his son's birth from an angel is right out of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible by a legendary group of seventy rabbis begun in the third century BC, the word “Septuagint” from the Latin septuaginta, meaning “seventy.” What Luke has done is to masterfully breath across the first chapter of his Gospel the style, the vocabulary, even the meter of the Septuagint's Greek version of the Old Testament, where we read about women like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Anna, all of whom were sterile, and all of whom gave birth, through divine intervention, to one or another of Israel's great leaders. One of those accounts makes up our first lesson today, from the Book of Judges, in which the wife of Manoah, who is barren, receives a message from an angel that she is to bear a son who will deliver Israel from the Philistines, and thus is born Sampson.
That angel is not named, but the angel who appears to Zechariah while he's in the Temple burning incense identifies himself as Gabriel, whose next stop will be to visit our Blessed Mother, but who last appeared in the Bible in the Book of Daniel, where he told Daniel, in answer to his prayers, that, after a period of what he called “seventy weeks of years,” God's people would return to the Holy City of Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (cf. Daniel 9); and, if you count them, from the moment that Gabriel appears to Zechariah in that same Temple, to the moment our Blessed Lord is brought there to be presented to God in obedience to the Law of Moses, there passes exactly 490 days, or seventy weeks.
At the beginning of Advent I had reminded you of the seamless transition from the Old Testament to the New in response to our Lord referring to John the Baptist as Elijah in Matthew 11 (vs. 2-10). Saint Luke illustrates it in many different ways, not least of which being his more than clever use of the number seventy. It may be the most brilliant literary device ever conceived, made more so by the fact that it was all inspired by God to tell us the story of our Savior.
When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, the first words out of his mouth are, “Do not be afraid,” but even this is more than what it seems. The Greek is μὴ φοβοῦ; it appears in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament at least five times—in Genesis, in Joshua, in Daniel—any time someone receives a vision or a message from God. Like the prophet Jeremiah before him, the child Gabriel announces is anointed by God before his birth for the work of redemption. When Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son “is to drink neither wine nor strong drink” (1: 15 Knox), Luke is lifting word for word the Nazarite vow from the Book of Numbers (6: 1-8). When the Angel says that John will “bring back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God” (v. 16 Knox), Luke uses the word ἐπιστρέψει, to “turn back,” the same word used when Elijah “turned back” to Mount Sinai to rediscover the God who had once revealed Himself there to Moses (Isaiah 19: 3-13); and, the prophet Malachi uses the same word to declare that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, to turn Israel back to the law of Moses, and reconcile father to son and son to father (cf. Mal. 3: 22). But the Elijah of which Malachi spoke was John; Gabriel even tells Zechariah explicitly that his son will be another Elijah, just as our Lord did.
But as brilliant and as subtle and as beautiful as Luke's care in crafting of the story of our Lord's entrance into this world is, it pales in comparison to the care taken by God Himself in crafting the means of our redemption. When the blessed Evangelist wrote of these things, he poured so much of his brilliant mind and heart into his words because he understood that he was writing of the greatest event in human history. As we approach our own celebration of these mysteries, let us resolve to apply that same level of care and detail to preparing our souls for it.
* Cf. the first footnote attached to the post here for an explanation of the Days of the Greater Antiphons.
** In the extraordinary form, the days of the Greater Antiphons do not have specific lessons assigned to them as they do in the ordinary form, with the lessons taken from the previous Sunday as usual, unless displaced by a feast or an Ember Day.
*** Cf. the first paragraph of the first footnote attached to the post here for an explanation of Philip's Fast. Today is the Fifth Monday because the season began on a Tuesday.
Boniface was martyred under Emperor Diocletian around the year 290.