Cornelius A Lapide - The Great Commentary
I proceed from the Old Testament to the New, from Solomon to Christ, as from a rivulet to a fountain: from Proverbs to Gospels, as from a river to the Ocean of Wisdom. Speaking of the Gospels I would place a crown upon the Scriptures of the New Testament.
The dignity, usefulness, and majesty of Scripture are so great that it surpasses the books of all philosophers and theologians, both Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as much as Divine surpasses human wisdom. For Scripture is the Word of God. It is the very utterance of God, by means of which God enunciates His wisdom to us, and points out to us the way to virtue, health, and eternal happiness. S. Augustine asserts that “Sacred Scripture is an Encyclopædia of all the sciences. Here is Natural Philosophy, because all the causes of all creatures are in God, the Creator. Here is Moral Philosophy, because a good and honest life is derived from no other source than the love of God and our neighbour as they ought to be loved. Here is Logic, because Truth and the Light of the rational soul are God. Here is Political Science, for a really flourishing State can neither be founded nor preserved except upon the foundation, and by the bond of faith, and firm concord, when the common good of all is loved: that is to say, when God is loved above all things, and when men love one another in Him, and for His sake.” After an interval he adds, “By the Scriptures depraved minds are corrected, little minds are nourished, great minds are delighted. The only minds which are hostile to this doctrine are those which either by going astray know not its healthfulness, or being sick dislike its medicine.”
Sacred Scripture is the art of arts, the science of sciences: it is the Pandora of Wisdom. In our own time, S. Theresa, a woman endowed with the spirit of prophecy, and renowned throughout all Spain for the glory of her miracles, and the sanctity of her life, was taught by God that all the troubles of the Church, all the evils in the world, flow from this source, that men do not, by clear and sound knowledge, and serious consideration, penetrate into the verities of Sacred Scripture. See Franciscus Ribera, her Life.
S. Basil (Hom. in Ps. I) says, “Holy Scripture is the universal depository of medicine for the cure of souls. From it every one may select the remedy which is salutary and appropriate for his own disease.”
Thus it was that in the age of the martyrs, the Church drew from Holy Scripture courage and fortitude; in the times of the doctors aptitude both to learn and teach, the illumination of wisdom, floods of eloquence; in the ages of heresy, confirmation of faith, whereby errors were plucked up: in prosperity she learns from Holy Scripture humility and modesty, in adversity greatness of soul. Lastly, if at any time in all the gliding years the Church be deformed by the wrinkles of old age, by spots, or blemishes, it is from the Scriptures she derives correction of morals, and a return to her primitive state of virtue and dignity.
Now, of all the Divine writings, the Gospel is the most excellent, says S. Augustine (de Consens. Evan. c. I). “For that which the Law and the Prophets foretold was to be is shown in the Gospel to be accomplished. Prophecy is the Gospel veiled as the Gospel is prophecy unveiled.” Hear S. Ambrose: “It is the Gospel by which the martyr ascends to heaven. The Gospel is the sea in which the Apostles fish: wherein the net is cast to which the kingdom of heaven is like. The Gospel is the sea in which the mysteries of Christ are figured. The Gospel is the sea in which the Hebrews were saved, the Egyptians drowned. The Gospel is the sea, wherein is the plentitude of Divine grace, wherein is the Spouse of Christ, which has been founded upon the seas, as the prophet hath said, ‘He hath founded it upon the seas.’”
Christ cries aloud, “I am the Light of the World,” for by means of the Light of the Gospel which I spread abroad, I illuminate the whole world. The Gospel, therefore, is the Light of the world, and its Sun. This is why, when it is read, candles are lighted. This was an ancient custom even in the time of Jerome, as he shows in his work against Vigilantius: “In all the Eastern churches when the Gospel is read, lights are kindled, even when the sun is shining, not for the purpose of banishing darkness, but as a mark of joy. Whence also the virgins in the parable always had their lamps burning, that under the figure of corporeal light there might be set forth the light of which we read in the Psalter, ‘Thy word, O Lord, is a light unto my feet, and a lantern unto my paths.’”
This is why there has ever been, not only by the Saints but by all Christians, wonderful reverence paid to the Gospel, wonderful love, wonderful veneration. Constantine the Great sent a book of the Gospels, adorned with gold and precious stones, to S. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. The Emperor Theodosius wrote the Gospels with his own hand, and was wont to read them a good part of the night. The Œcumenical Councils of Nicæa, Chalcedon, and Ephesus, caused a volume containing the Gospels to be placed in the midst of their house of assembly, that to it, as to the Person of Christ, they might turn, as though Christ Himself were saying to them, “Judge righteous judgment.” (S. Cyril, in Apolog.) Even the heretics, who have expunged some books of Holy Scripture from the Canon, mutilated and depraved others, have not dared to meddle with the Gospels. Even heathens have respected the Gospels. How high an opinion the Platonists had of them S. Austin relates. de Civit. Dei, 10. 29. And in his Confessions he says, that in a certain Platonic book he had found the first words of S. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” but not the sentence, “The Word was made flesh.” In fine, the devils tremble at beholding the Book of the Gospels; and S. Chrysostom says, they dare not enter the place in which it is kept. (Hom. 31 in Joan.)
Christ has wrought many miracles by means of the Gospels. Hear a few out of many. Gregory of Tours relates that when a certain city was in a state of conflagration S. Gall entered the church, and prayed for a long time before the altar. He then rose and took the Book of the Gospels, and placed himself in front of the fire, which was immediately extinguished. Zonaras also, in his Life of Basil the Macedonian, relates that the Russians were converted by seeing a book of the Gospels preserved uninjured in the flames.
The Holy Gospels claim the surpassing dignity which they hold, as well on account of their subject as because of their Author. Their subject is God Himself, as God and Man. That is to say, the Gospels relate the deeds and the words of Christ the Lord, by means of which He has redeemed us, and taught both what we should believe, and what we should do, that we may arrive at eternal life. Therefore Christ in the Gospels deals with the divine precepts and counsels, with the perfection of Christian life. He speaks of the Sacraments, of faith, hope, and charity, of the Trinity, and indeed of the whole matter with which theology is conversant. You might, with S. Jerome, give this definition of the Gospels: “A Breviary and Compendium of all Theology.”
The Author, and as we might call Him, the Choragus in the Evangelical Drama, who is the chief, almost the sole actor and speaker, is Christ the Lord. “God,” says the Apostle to the Hebrews, “who at sundry times, and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds.” Therefore not Moses, nor prophets, nor kings, but the Only-Begotten One, who from the mind of the Father hath drawn the secrets of the Divine Wisdom, and the very uncreated Wisdom itself, hath made the same known unto us in the Gospels. The very omniscient Word, I say, here speaks to us with His own mouth, and declares the mysteries kept secret from eternity, though shadowed forth by so many figures in the Law and the Prophets.
This is another way by which the Gospels vindicate for themselves the dignity which is due to them. They have been so formed by the Holy Ghost that those who are simple and unlearned should not be without profit in reading them, whilst great and lofty intellects may discover many things both difficult and obscure in which they may find exercise for their highest powers. “The Divine Word,” says S. Gregory (Prefat. in Job, c. 4), “exercises by its mysteries those who are prudent and comforts the simple, for the most part, by what appears on its surface. It has openly wherewith to nourish the little ones: it preserves in secret things whereby it may fill with admiration the minds of the lofty. It is, if I may so say, a river which is both shallow and deep: in which a lamb may wade, and an elephant may swim.” For indeed the doctrine of Christ is easy and accessible both to the lowly and the learned: it is only difficult and inaccessible to those who are proud, or slothful, or have confidence in themselves. “I give thanks unto Thee, O Father,” saith Christ, “because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father, because it hath seemed good in Thy sight.”
These and many other such like things you will clearly perceive, if you compare the Law with the Gospel. Under the Law I include the Prophets, and all the other books of the Old Testament: under the Gospel, the rest of the New Testament. The Gospels are, as it were, their base and centre. As the sun shines resplendent in the midst of the planets, and as they borrow their light from him, and circle around him, and move, as I may say, in a kind of choric dance, so is the Gospel refulgent like the sun amongst the writings of the Apostles, and imparts to them its own light and splendour. For what else are Peter, Paul, James, John, and Jude than preachers and interpreters of the Gospel? “Paul,” says S. Jerome (Epist. 61, ad Pammach.), “is the Gospel trumpet, the roaring of our lion, the flood of Christian eloquence.” Thus the Acts of the Apostles set forth Gospel practice; the Epistles of S. Paul and the other Apostles, Gospel doctrine; the Apocalypse, prophecy. For what Christ foretold concerning Elias, Antichrist, the Judgment, and the end of the world, and the signs which shall go before it, John, in the Apocalypse, relates and unfolds more at length. Christ in the Gospel is, as it were, the Supreme Lawgiver, Apostle, Evangelist, and Doctor. He likewise is the Divine Seer and Prophet.
Christ Himself is the true Author of the Gospel. For this very cause He clothed His Godhead with our flesh, that by means of it, He might dictate the Gospel with His own mouth. “For,” as S. John says, “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” What then is the Gospel? It is the Book of Christ, the Philosophy of Christ, the Theology of Christ; it is the most joyful message of Christ concerning redemption, and the everlasting salvation of the human race, brought by Himself from heaven, and conferred upon believers in Him. For Christ spake far more sublime and divine things by His own mouth than He spake by Moses and the Prophets.
To read, then, or to hear the Gospel, is to read or to hear the very words of the Son of God. And thus the Gospel must be listened to with the self-same reverence as if we were listening to Christ Himself. And this is what we read S. Anthony, S. Basil, S. Francis, and other saints did. “Let us hearken to the Gospel,” saith S. Austin, “as to the Lord: the Lord is above, but here, too, is the Lord, the Truth.” This is why, when the Gospel is read in church, all stand up, as venerating Christ. This custom has Apostolic sanction. Hear S. Clement (in book 2 of the Apostolic Constitutions, c. 61), “When the Gospel is read, let all the presbyters, deacons, and laity stand up, and keep perfect silence.” Isidore of Pelusium shows that the same custom should also be observed by bishops: “When the True Pastor himself approaches, by opening the adorable Gospels, then at last the bishop rises, by this signifying that the Lord Himself is the Prince of the pastoral office, and that God his Master is present.” (Lib. I Epist. 136.) Sozomen condemns the Alexandrine custom, by which, contrary to the general usage of the Church, the bishop does not rise when the Gospels are read. (Lib. 9, c. 39.) Moreover, the Eighth General Council (Act. 10. Can.) decrees that equal honour shall be paid to the Gospels as to the Cross of Christ: “We decree that the sacred image of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all, shall be reverenced with the same honour as the book of the Holy Gospels. For like as by the words which are contained in the Book all attain to salvation, so by depicting in colours, both wise men as well as the unlearned receive profit from that which is before their eyes. For that which is in syllables are the words of Scripture, and they are preached and commended to us by pictures.”
A second reason for the superiority of the Gospel over the Law is found in the surpassing excellence of its doctrine. The doctrine of the Gospel greatly excels that which is found in the Law. The Law declares that one God is to be believed in and worshipped. The Gospel preaches of God, One in Essence, but Three in Person, who is to be loved and worshipped. “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” I allow that in the Law and the Prophets there was a foreshadowing of the mystery of the Trinity. And it was from thence that Trismegistus drew his oracular saying, “Monad begat Monad, and reflected back his warmth upon Himself.” But he neither understood nor penetrated the truth of the mystery. This, too, the Platonists followed after, but they did not attain unto it. They corrupted the truth by an error similar to Arianism, for whilst they proclaimed one chief God, they held that there were lesser and inferior gods. The prophets darkly and obscurely foretell the birth, life, cross, passion, and ascension of Christ, the mission of the Holy Ghost, the calling and conversion of all nations; but the Gospel firmly and clearly announces these things. The foreknowledge, providence, predestination, omnipotence, infinite love of God, and all His other attributes, are openly and distinctly set forth, not by the Law, but by the Gospel. “No man,” saith S. John, “hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the Bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him.” Therefore, when Christ was made man, He descended from the bosom of His Father into the bosom of His Mother, that He might declare unto us the secrets of the Father, which were known to Himself alone. This, in truth, is “the great mystery of godliness,” which, as the Apostle says, “was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” This verily is not in the Law, but in the Gospel.
S. Anthony, as Anastasius testifies in his Life, called the Gospel “a Letter of God sent down from heaven,” teaching how we ought to journey towards heaven, how we ought to please God, and live a good and perfect life. Excellently saith S. Bernard (Serm. 1, on the Seven Loaves), “The Gospel is the mirror of truth; it flatters no one, it misleads no one; in it every one will find himself just what he is, so that he need not fear where there is no cause for fear, nor yet rejoice when he hath done evil.” S. Gregory uses the same metaphor (lib. 2 Mor. c. 1), “Sacred Scripture is placed before the eyes of the mind, as it were a mirror, that in it we may behold our inward face; in it we can behold our deformity and our beauty; there we discern how we have profited, there how far we have been from profiting.” With this S. Ambrose agrees, saying (Serm. 20 in Ps. 119), “The Gospel not only teaches the faith, it is the school of morals, the mirror of conversation.”
Let us admire the sentiment of S. Bernard, who does not hesitate to say (Serm. 1 in Sep.) that he who hears, reads, meditates upon the word of God with profit, hath a sign and a pledge of his predestination; and, that you may not be astonished, he adds the reason: “He that is of God,” saith the Truth, “heareth the words of God. Ye, therefore, hear them because ye are of God.” Thus S. Cecilia, the glory of Rome, the princess of virgins, the standard-bearer of the martyrs, always carried the Gospel of Christ in her bosom, which neither flame, nor sword, nor torments were able to wrest from her; but by it she not only won for herself the laurels of virginity and martyrdom, but instructed and prepared her betrothed, Valerian, and her brother, Tiburtius, and many more, for the same laurels; so that deservedly does the Church sing of her, “Thine handmaid, Lord, Cecilia, like unto an industrious bee, doth Thee service.”
Lastly, the Law made no Apostles, but the Gospel hath made very many. For “the word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, reaching even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” For the Gospel has this force, that it causes him who believes in it to engage in propagating it, and so makes him a herald and preacher of it.
S. Chrysanthus, who empurpled Rome by a copious stream of his own and his relations’ blood, being converted to Christ from heathenism by reading the Gospel, afterwards converted his wife, Daria; and after that he drew men, and Daria women, without number, to faith and chastity.
S. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, when he was propagating the faith of Christ in Germany, about the year A.D. 750, always carried about with him the sacred volume of the Gospels. Even in his martyrdom he did not let it go, but when the Frisons brandished their swords above his head he opposed this book as a sort of spiritual shield; and by a remarkable miracle, although the book was cut right in twain by a sharp sword, not a single letter was destroyed. S. Dominic, that illustrious torch of the Church, the Father of the Friars Preachers, had the Gospel of S. Matthew for his constant companion. He knew almost the whole of it by heart, and was wont to say, “Without Holy Scripture a preacher cannot exist.” Rightly does S. Gregory, upon those words of Job, “Silver has the beginnings of its own veins,” say, “Silver is the brightness of eloquence, or wisdom. The veins of Holy Scripture are as if any one should say plainly, it is necessary that he who prepares himself for the words of true preaching should derive their sources from the sacred pages, that whatsoever he speaks he should recall to the foundation of Divine authority, and make firm the edifice of his discourse upon that.” When Ven. Bede was dying, almost with his last breath he would finish his translation of S. John’s Gospel, and said to his scribe, “Take your pen, and write quickly.” Then when the last words were written, like a dying swan, he sang, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” and most calmly breathed out his spirit to enjoy the reward of his faith and labours in the Beatific Vision of God, A.D. 731. The Emperor Charles, truly the Great, both in body and in the glory of sacred literature, as well as for his actions, a little before his death, after the coronation of his son Louis, gave himself up entirely to prayer, almsdeeds, and learning. He himself carefully revised the Four Gospels in conformity with their Greek and Syriac originals. Thus he spent his time until his last conflict. His Book of the Gospels is religiously preserved at Aix-la-Chapelle, as I myself have seen. The heretics have been imitators of these things. It is well known of one, Philip Melancthon, that he never went anywhere, never sat down, nor supped, nor dined, without having the Gospels by his side. But, leaving the sectaries, let us return to the Apostles. S. Barnabas was with S. Paul, the first Apostle of the Gentiles. When he was going forth to convert them he wrote out the Gospel of S. Matthew, and carried it about with him wherever he went. At length, dying a martyr for the Gospel in Cyprus, he desired to be buried with it, as a pledge of the heavenly resurrection promised to him. This very Gospel of S. Matthew was found upon his breast in the time of the Emperor Zeno. See his Life. The Apostle Bartholomew, as Eusebius tells us (H. E. v. 10), took with him to the Indies the Gospel of S. Matthew in Hebrew, written with his own hand. There he left it, and more than a hundred years afterwards Pantænus found it, and brought it to Alexandria. What turned Saul into Paul? The Gospel. “These were the men,” says S. Leo (Serm. 1 on SS. Peter and Paul), “by whom the Gospel shone upon thee, O Rome. They delivered to thee, as a charge to keep, that Gospel which Christ had committed unto them: they sealed it with their blood, that thou shouldst keep it pure, and deliver it, and expound it to all the other Churches as a mistress of truth. This is what Paul proclaims aloud to thee in his Epistle: ‘That I may be the minister of Christ to the Gentiles, sanctifying (Gr. ίερουργοϋντα, that is, consecrating) the Gospel of God, that the oblation of the Gentiles may be accepted and sanctified by the Holy Ghost.’” The Gospel, and the preaching and interpretation of the Gospel, is the sacrifice; the Romans and the Gentiles who believe the Gospel are the victims. These the Apostle offered to God as a most acceptable oblation, when he evangelized them. The blood of Paul was the libation by which this sacrifice was bedewed.
The same S. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, “To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ: and to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God who created all things: that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church.”
Paul, therefore, was the doctor of angels. S. Chrysostom commenting on the passage says, he taught the principalities and powers the Gospel of Christ. They, therefore, are followers of Paul, and co-workers with him who handle and expound the Gospel, and preach it to countrymen and foreigners, to believers and infidels. These are they whom Isaiah deservedly praises, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things.”
It remains that we should apply the doctrines of the Gospel to our own lives and those of others. For the Gospel is a mirror in which every one may behold his own face. “The Life of Christ,” says S. Bernard, “is the rule by which I ought to frame my life.” Christ is Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last. “The First,” says S. Austin, “in eternity, the Last by humility.”
Let us learn then from the Evangel to live evangelically, that is, angelically. For Christ as an Angel descended from heaven that He might teach men angelic life and doctrine, yea, that of men He might make angels, and in a certain sense, gods. Christ shall come to his temple, and purify the priesthood. They that continue in their evil ways shall be punished: but true penitents shall receive a blessing. “Behold, I” saith He by the Prophet Malachi, “send My Angel, and He shall prepare the way before My face: presently the Lord whom you seek, the angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant, whom ye delight in, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Wherefore from Him, who is the Eternal Wisdom of the Father, we must diligently ask light and the grace of His Spirit, that He who sat in the midst of the Doctors when He was about to make a commencement of the Gospel, would even now open it both to teachers and taught, that they may understand it, and fulfil their understanding of it by Christian works.
Let us say therefore again and again with S. Augustine, if not with equal, yet with similar fervour (lib. 4 de Trinit. c. 1), “In this sort of men, who have sorrow in their pilgrimage, because they long for the country, and for God the Founder of it, in this family of Thy Christ, O my God, among Thy poor I groan; give me of thy Bread to answer men, who neither hunger nor thirst after justice, but are full and abound. For their own fancy, not Thy Truth hath satisfied them, for they repel Thy Truth and kick against it, that they may fall in their own vanity. Clearly do I perceive how many figments the heart of man brings forth. And what is my heart but the heart of a man? But for this I pray to thee God of my heart that in these writings I may put forth none of those figments for solid truth, but that there may come into them whatever shall be able to come through me from the place whence the dawning of His truth breaks upon me, although I have been cast out of the sight of His eyes, and am striving to return from afar by the path which the Divine Person of His Only-Begotten One hath laid down for mankind.”
After a little he adds, “The essence of God is such, that It hath nothing mutable, neither in eternity, nor in truth, nor in will, because there there is eternal truth, and eternal love: and true charity is there, and true eternity; there is loving eternity, and loving truth.”
Open unto us, O Lord Jesus, the arcana of truth, and of Thine own true love, Thou that hast the key of David, who openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and no man openeth, that we may know it clearly, and when we know it, may love and cherish it, and loving it, may indeed fulfil it, for Thou art our Love, Thou our Desire, our Life, and Blessedness. Amen.