Matthew’s gospel gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous early life of the holy family. He begins by introducing us to Jesus through his genealogy which is meant to place Jesus in the kingly line of David. But by enumerating Jesus’ ancestors, Matthew is also stressing the humanity of Jesus whose family tree contains saints, sinners, kings, prostitutes and even murderers.
The story of the birth of Jesus then begins with Joseph’s discovery that Mary was pregnant. He was about to break the engagement when, in a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to marry her. The Holy Spirit has been guiding this relationship, and it
was through the power of the Holy Spirit that she had conceived. The angel then shared with Joseph the child’s destiny. “She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Quite a revelation for a young man about to embark on married life! But the story didn’t stop there.
Sometime after the child was born, exotic figures, Magi from the East, came to Jerusalem looking for the “newborn king of the Jews.” Their appearance fanned the flames of king Herod’s paranoia. So, the angel returned to Joseph, once again in a dream, to warn him that Herod wanted to destroy the child. He told Joseph that he must flee the country and take refuge in Egypt. They packed up what little they had and fled to Egypt in the middle of the night.
After a period of time, the angel again appeared in Joseph’s dream. He informed him that Herod had died, and that it was safe to return to Judah. But learning that Herod’s son, the highly unpopular Archelaus, had succeeded his father, Joseph brought his wife and son to the northern region of Galilee. They settled in a town called Nazareth which was outside the jurisdiction of Archelaus.
This story of the holy family certainly touches all of us in one way or another. We all have relatives we’re proud of, and we all have relatives who embarrass us. We live in a similarly turbulent world where many millions are fleeing violence and death threats. Others are fleeing from the hunger belts throughout the world.
Matthew’s account of the holy family’s early life is, perhaps, an attempt to offer hope to all of us, even the millions of families suffering what seem like hopeless situations. He’s reassuring us that God, in some mysterious way, stands in solidarity with us. Whatever our family or political situations may be, let’s acknowledge, and lean on, God’s presence in our lives. That’s the most perfect prayer we can lift up today. May God bless each one of us as we maneuver our way through the storms of life. May the Holy Spirit be with us to strengthen us with wisdom, and gift us with hope and peace.
THE FEAST OF MARY, THE MOTHER OF GOD December 31-January 1, 2019 Numbers 6:22-27 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:16-21 Gather #898
This Feast Day used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. With the renewal of the Liturgy after Vatican Council II the accent was moved from Jesus to Mary. However, I would like to look briefly at both of these themes today because they’re so closely connected. Let’s first look at the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
The gospel passage begins by finishing the account of the shepherds. The angel had told them about the child who was born. “Today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” This is a clear announcement. Not only is this child the long-awaited Messiah, he is Lord. Remember, also, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blest are you among women.” She also greeted Mary as, “the mother of my Lord.” It’s from reflecting on passages like these that the Church came to give Mary the title, Theotokos, Mother of God (Godbearer).
This title, though focusing on Mary, clarifies our understanding of Jesus. He is both human and divine. The prologue of John’s gospel that we read at the Christmas Mass put it this way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Word, the Son of God, became a human being, a son of man. In Jesus, we see the fullness of humanity. We see his humanity in his anger when he cleanses the temple. We see his humanity when he sweats blood in Gethsemane and screams out from the cross, “My God, why have you abandoned me?!” We see his humanity when he blesses the children. We see the face of God and man in the love he extends as he forgives sins and heals those who are suffering. We see him glorified as the Christ in his resurrection and ascension.
This brings us to the last part of the passage we’re reading today, the mention of the circumcision of Jesus. “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”
This was the day he was stamped with his name, Jesus, which means savior. This is the day he entered our human family, the son of Mary, a man, a Jew. “The Word was made flesh…made his dwelling among us…and we have seen his glory.”
This feast weds heaven to earth in the person of Jesus, God and man. In Jesus we see the face of God.
Our Christmas reflection begins a few days early as we ponder the scripture readings for the last Sunday of Advent. We begin by listening to the most famous prophecy in the Old Testament.
At a time of grave national crisis, as kings were uniting to wage war against Judah’s king Ahaz, Isaiah delivered these words of hope to him. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was speaking to the dire situation Ahaz was facing, but at the same time, his prophecy was looking into the future. Today, Matthew incorporates this prophecy into his infancy narrative that begins, like the story of King Ahaz, with a crisis.
Joseph had discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. He had decided to quietly dissolve the engagement until he had a dream. In the dream an angel explained to him that he and Mary were part of a divine intervention that was beginning to unfold through the working of the Holy Spirit. Mary would give birth to a son who was to be named Jesus, a name that focused his destiny. Jesus means: to deliver – to rescue – to save. He will be the long-awaited redeemer. Matthew then quoted Isaiah’s prophecy but implied a radically new interpretation. The child would be named Emmanuel, “which means ‘God is with us.’” For King Ahaz the child that was to be born would be strengthened by God’s power in order to rescue Judah from invading armies. Matthew declared that at that very moment Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fulfillment. This child named Jesus would literally be “God with us!”
MIDNIGHT MASS December 24, 2019 Titus 2:11-14 Gather #892
We bundle up and leave our homes in the dead of night to gather with the community for the Midnight Mass. Again, Isaiah speaks to us. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
Then St. Paul adds to Isaiah’s prophecy. His short exclamation in his letter to his co-worker, Titus, reassures him, and us, that God’s light is with him. “The grace of God has appeared, saving all…as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”
Finally, an angel speaks to us through the shepherds in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. From the dark night sky, the angel speaks. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you, who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger.”
Luke’s reference to the child wrapped in swaddling clothes is a prophecy of the day the adult Jesus will, once again, be again be wrapped in clothes – this time, he will be wrapped in his shroud. His redemptive death is intimated even at the moment of his birth. And as we gaze at the manger we recall Jesus’ promise to be the bread of life.
In the darkness of this holy night we celebrate the Light proclaiming that Christ, the Light, is among us. With joy and thanksgiving, we celebrate that Light and share the Bread of Life. May it strengthen us in our mission to bring the Light into the darkness.
As we read the Advent scriptures we can feel a dramatic pressure building. There’s anticipation and a deep sense of hope within us. Think of the messianic prophecies Isaiah proclaimed to us over the past three weeks.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” “Strengthen the hand of the feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong fear not! Here is your God.”
When we think of the messiah and the new world to come, we’re filled with hope, which is the core of Advent. But these words of hope can, and often do, backfire on us. We listen to these wonderful prophecies, and then look at the world we live in. War, violence, starvation, global warming, political corruption, sex abuse, Chinese concentration camps, American detention centers, refugees, immigrants – and on and on. It’s no wonder that there’s so much depression during the holidays. We’re torn between hope and despair.
James, in the portion of his letter that we read today, gives us some good spiritual advice. “Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer STEWARDSHIP REPORT
waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient.” But sitting around being patient isn’t enough. So he adds, “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Isaiah gives us a vision to work towards. We must be patient and deeply dedicated to the work of the promised kingdom. The messianic time will come through people like me and you who relentlessly work for justice, harmony, forgiveness and compassion. We recommit ourselves to this work every time we celebrate the Eucharist by proclaiming individually and as a community: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the Messianic time. “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials, religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empty ourselves and become Christ.
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known pas- sage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious politi- cal situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrust – worthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in
721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Pales- tine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during
those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah de- livered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she has become! Zion, once full of fair judgment, where saving justice used to dwell, but now assassins! Your silver has turned to dross, your wine is watered. Your princes are rebels, accomplices of brigands. All of them greedy for presents and eager for bribes, they show no justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision Jerusalem is trans- formed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dis- solved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National boarders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream to the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national boarders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”