SIRACH 3:2-7 COLOSSIANS 3:12-21 LUKE 2:22-40
About 30 days after Jesus’ birth Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem to perform two religious rituals, the redemption of the firstborn and the purification of the mother. It was common belief that every firstborn male belonged to God. This may be a remnant from the ancient days when the first born was sacrificed to the gods. This was abhorrent to the Jewish psyche, and so it evolved the pagan practice into a simple ritual of offering a “ransom” for the child by giving a small donation to the priests.
The purification of the mother ended the period of time after the birth of a child when a woman was considered ritually unclean – forty days for a boy and eighty days for a girl. A sheep was generally sacrificed for her purification. However, the poor could offer two turtle doves or two pigeons. This was Mary’s offering.
By noting these rituals Luke, who was writing to people who weren’t Jewish, was making it clear to his readers that Jesus was totally integrated into Jewish life and culture. He had already noted that Jesus was a descendent of King David. Simultaneously, Luke was stressing that, with the birth of Jesus, Israel was on the brink of a new time – the Messianic time. He illustrated this by introducing five characters into his infancy narrative.
The first three were Zachariah, his wife Elizabeth and their son, John. Zachariah represented the old time. He was a priest of the old covenant. His wife, a symbol of Israel, was barren as Israel seemed to be. However, their miracle baby, John, was to be the first sign of new life for Israel. He would be Israel’s last prophet. He would announce the coming of the new time and prepare the people to welcome it.
The scene we read today introduces Simeon and Anna. They both recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Simeon was a good and righteous man who prayed that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Messiah. As he took Jesus into his arms he broke into a prayer declaring him “a light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of your people, Israel.” The new time had certainly arrived. But it would be a time of challenge, too. Simeon turned to Mary and continued his prophecy. “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke then introduced Anna into the scene, an eighty-four-year-old prophetess. She was the symbol of Israel’s long and dedicated fidelity to God’s covenant. “She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” She announced the arrival of the new time to “all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.”
What’s Luke trying to say to us in this passage? He’s reflecting on the birth of the new Israel. This has nothing to do with a country. Israel is a people – God’s people – God’s chosen people. Simeon and Anna are the old Israel – loyal and faithful but tired. There was a time when the prophets spoke God’s word to them. But it had been four hundred years since God had spoken through a prophet. John the Baptist would break that silence. His words would usher in the new time.
Everything we’ve read from Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus gives definition to the new time. It’s shocking, and maybe even disturbing, because it’s not what anyone of us would have expected. The Messiah was to be a king and a savior, but in our earthly assessment he was powerless. He wasn’t like the kings we’ve known or the military figures who brought peace by conquering nations. He was poor. He was homeless. His bed was a feeding trough. The message he preached was love.
Luke is telling us that in the new time we can no longer trust the things we’ve always trusted. The structures of power and control that we’ve relied upon for so long to maintain order and promote a spotty prosperity are obsolete. The new time is to be marked by the power
of selfless love. It will be modeled by a Messiah king who will pour out his life for others. He will even become the bread of life for anyone who hungers for life in the new time.
We call this Sunday Family Sunday. But it’s not so much about a mother and a father and the children. It’s about the new family in the new time. But if self-giving is the hallmark of the new time, what does the family look like? In the new time the family isn’t only a small unit, it’s also global, its people caring for each other and pouring out their lives in love for one another.
Since the birth of Jesus, we’ve been struggling to let the new time reign, but we’ve been hanging on to the old time, its values and its methods. Every Christmas Season the scriptures remind us to let go! To begin to envision the new time. To take your first steps into that new time. I’ll conclude my reflection now. I encourage you to contemplate these scriptures taken from our Advent and Christmas scriptures. As you do so, open you heart to the new time.
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“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. O house of Jacob, come, walk in the light of the Lord!” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“Let us, then, throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (2 nd Sunday of Advent)
“Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!” (2nd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient, my brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Midnight Mass)
“In times past, God spoke to us in partial and various ways through the prophets; in these last days he has spoken to us through the Son…” (Christmas Day)
2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16 ROMANS 16:25-27 LUKE 1:26-38
We generally think of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary as the one and only annunciation reported in the Gospels. However, there are three annunciations in the Gospel of Luke. Each one is unique and important for our reflection.
The first annunciation was to a priest, Zachariah. While he was in the temple taking his turn to offer incense in the sanctuary, Gabriel appeared to him. He was told not to be afraid.
Even though he was an old man and his wife, Elizabeth, barren, he was promised a son. Their son, John, filled with the Holy Spirit, would be the last prophet of Israel and would prepare the people for the coming of the redeemer.
The second annunciation was to Mary. She, too, was counselled not to be afraid. Though a virgin, Gabriel told her that she was chosen to have a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. His name was to be Jesus which means savior. He would be a great king, and his kingdom would last forever.
The third annunciation was to shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. Gabriel, speaking from the divine glory, warned them not to be afraid and directed them to the new-born king. They found him
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
These three announcements cover all of salvation history. Zachariah and Elizabeth represent Israel, old and barren, yet ever faithful. Mary, young and fertile, is the New Israel, bravely committing herself as the handmaid of the Lord to the divine invitation. The shepherds, God’s poor ones, are the first to see, the first to believe, and the first to announce the birth of the redeemer. Today, we renew our faithfulness to the God who loves us and who has journeyed with us throughout history. Today, we pledge our commitment to the plan God has laid out for humankind. Today, we see; we renew our belief; we commit to announce the good news we’ve discovered.
Lord, how can this be? How it is that you have found me and called me by name? What is your will for me? What do you ask of me? May the Spirit heal me of my fear that I might say with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord.” Amen.
ISAIAH 61:1-2A, 10-11. 1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-24 JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
Hope is the theme of this Sunday’s scriptures. Isaiah puts it in context. St. Paul rejoices in it. And John the Baptist proclaims it to anyone with open ears and a welcoming heart.
Isaiah begins the reflection. He looks into the future and sees a powerful figure, anointed with the Spirit of God, whose mission it will be to bring a message of good news to the people – the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners. Isaiah is describing people like you and me. We may carry the scars of personal tragedy. We may grieve the loss of loved ones or our physical deterioration. We may be healthy and secure, but we may still feel that life is burdensome. Isaiah is telling us that the day is coming when all of us will be directed to a vision of light and liberation. A day is coming when our hope will blossom into joy.
In the second scripture St. Paul tells the community of Christians in Thessalonica to make thanksgiving, joy and prayer the center of their lives. He’s making reference to the Eucharistic gathering – the great Prayer of Thanksgiving. The Eucharist heals the community of despair and hopelessness. It’s the mystical banquet of the kingdom of God that we celebrate. At the Eucharistic table we’re nourished with the very source of joy and hope, Christ himself. Once in our hearts, no one or no thing can take this joy and hope from us.
The passage from the Gospel of John continues to focus the theme of hope as it recounts the testimony of John the Baptist. “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light. He was not the light but came to testify to the light.” Light, in the Gospel of John, is the divine presence. Throughout his Gospel he juxtaposes light and darkness. Light is love and harmony and peace – all that God is. Darkness is division and malevolence, and the energy of hate.
John’s message of hope assures that the light is very near. He’s encouraging everyone to abandon the mindsets that strengthen the darkness. Hope is the pathway to the light. He invites each of us to clothe ourselves in the light. Each of us have the power to change the way we think and live, and by doing so we can abandon the darkness and step into the light.
Let’s conclude this reflection by returning to Isaiah’s poetic description of hope. Let’s use it as a prayer of thanksgiving for hope fulfilled.
“I rejoiced heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11. 1 PETER 3:8-14 MARK 1:1-8
“Comfort, give comfort to my people.” These words are as important for us to hear today as they were when they were first spoken more than two and a half millennia ago.
The situation seemed hopeless when the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, invaded Judah and attacked Jerusalem in 608 BC. The King of Judah was slain during the seige, Jerusalem was destroyed, its temple burned to the ground and the remaining royal family and the prominent people of the city deported to Babylon. They and their descendants remained there until Cyrus, the king of Persia, defeated the Babylonian armies and liberated them in 538 BC. Isaiah’s words of comfort were directed to these exiles.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated.”
Throughout those seventy years of exile, a small, dedicated group of Jews remained faithful to God and their traditions. Their memory of the temple in Jerusalem was the buoy they clung to – the image that gave them strength and perseverance. Psalm 137 reflects the intensity of their devotion. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cling to my palate if I do not remember you; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above all my joys.”
It may seem strange at first, but we’re being encouraged to identify with these exiles today. But we actually do this quite frequently. When we recite the rosary, we clearly unite with these exiles when we pray: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
We carry these sentiments as we look at the Advent crèche. The two stories of the birth of Jesus are brought together in the scene. Matthew’s magi are there ready to offer their symbolic gifts. Luke’s shepherds are there ready to be the first to see the savior king. But in the Advent crèche, though all the figures look longingly at the manger bed, the child is absent from the scene.
The empty manger evokes our deepest hopes and longings. The scene promises us a kingdom so very different from anything humankind has ever known, a kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom in which all are family caring for one another, a kingdom devoid of killing and violence, of hostility and vengeance, a kingdom in which all life is sacred and joyfully celebrated from the moment of conception to the moment of Passover.
Today we’re invited to join the shepherds and the magi for a moment and to contemplate the empty manger with them. We’re invited to envision the new world Jesus preached. Pray the prayer he taught us. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Hope! Hope for the day “when the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all the people shall see it together.”