ZEPHANIAH 2:3,3:12-13 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:26-31 | MATTHEW 5:1-12
The most famous passage in the New Testament, the Beatitudes, sometimes called the Sermon on the Mount, is the focus of our reflection today. These nine one sentence statements act as an introduction to the teachings of Jesus. They begin with chapter 5 and continue through chapters 6 and 7. By setting Jesus’ teaching on a hilltop Matthew is clearly referencing the giving of the Law, the commandments, to Moses on Mount Sinai. These three chapters comprise the new law, the new commandments. Let’s compare them briefly.
The account of Moses giving the Law is in the book of Exodus, chapters 20 thru 31. Here’s the progression. Moses went up the mountain, was given the Law, and then returned to present to the people the commandments God had given to them. After the presentation of the 10 Commandments, a long series of applications followed: laws about the construction of altars, laws regarding the treatment of slaves, laws concerning violent acts, the responsibility of land owners, about repayment, moral and religious laws, liturgical laws etc.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the giving of the New Law begins with the presentation of the 9 Beatitudes. They aren’t laws. They don’t begin with “thou shalt, and thou shalt not” statements as in the old law. Rather, they’re a celebration of a new way of living. “How happy are the poor in spirit!” “How happy are the those who are humble!” Continuing, Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth and light for the world. He teaches how to deal with our anger, with divorce, with revenge. He teaches about the necessity of loving our enemies. He teaches the Lord’s Prayer and a new way to pray; he teaches us to ask so that we can receive, to seek so we can find and to knock so
that the door to heaven can be opened for us. He tells us about the narrow gate that leads to God.
I’m making this comparison of the old law to the new law for several reasons. We need to be aware that Jesus’ teaching represents an evolution. The old law wasn’t only a spiritual document, it was secular, too. It formed the basis of a constitution for Israel. It made Israel a nation based on the rule of law. In Jesus’ time, Roman law was the law of the land. Jewish law applied only to Jews; it was only religious law. The Roman republic had engulfed Israel as a nation; Roman law was now the law of the land.
The new law that Jesus preached reigned in the kingdom of the heart. In fact, if embraced, it could enrich any national constitution or body of laws. It could give law a soul.
I think we Christians have forgotten Jesus’ teaching. We look to the law of the land as the final word; but law needs to evolve. In the United States, for instance, slaves were legally two-thirds of a person under the law until 1886. In Canada, women only came under the definition of a legal person in 1929.
The sermon that Jesus preached that day on a hillside in Galilee put the spotlight on the heart. There would be no voting yea or nay on these laws because they’re personal goals. Each of us must make them part of our lives one evolutionary step at a time. These laws will change us. As we change, so will the laws of the land. There’ll be more soul to the laws, more justice, less political polarization and more unity.
Read the teachings of Jesus often. Spend time contemplating them. Make sure they’re the basis of your prayer. Feed your soul with them. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
ISAIAH 8:23, 9-3 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-13, 17 | MATTHEW 4:12-23
The time had come. John the Baptist, the voice preparing the way for the Messiah, had been arrested. He had publicly denounced Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother’s wife. It would not be long before Herod’s new wife would succeed in having John beheaded. His precursor’s voice silenced, it was time for the Messiah to step out and begin his work.
Jesus left his hometown, Nazareth, and moved to Galilee. Jesus knew what he was doing. Galilee was a densely populated area, and the most fertile area of Palestine. In addition, one of the great trade roads of the Middle East passed through Galilee connecting Syria to Egypt and Africa.
Galilee had a mixed population. Many of the original inhabitants, the Canaanites, still inhabited the area. Many Assyrians remained after they invaded in the 8th century BC. This rich mixture of Gentiles, Jews and foreign visitors passing through on the trade roots, gave Galilee a cosmopolitan flair. Galilee was the one area of Palestine that was in touch with non-Jewish influences and ideas. Galilee was the perfect place for Jesus to begin his preaching. His message was simple; he called for personal repentance, a change in the direction of one’s life. He announced the dawn of a new world, the kingdom of God.
As he walked along the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers casting their nets. These fisherman, Simon and Andrew had probably heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. His message wasn’t new to them; but today something happened. He called them. He looked right into their eyes. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” There was something about the call they couldn’t resist. They left their nets! They left their ordinary lives behind. They followed him.
They followed him a short distance when he spotted two other brothers. They were Zebedee’s sons. They were with their father in a boat mending their nets. Jesus called them. They left their father, their boat and their nets. They joined Simon and Andrew. Jesus wasn’t alone any longer. People we beginning to see possibility of the kingdom of God.
Thought for the day.
We, like Simon, Andrew, James and John, know about Jesus’ message. We know about his teaching and his healings. We know about his death and resurrection. Now, are we ready to change the direction of our lives? Are we brave enough to hear and respond to his call? Are we ready to follow him? Do we believe “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
ISAIAH 49:3, 5-6 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-3 | JOHN 1:29-34
“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’”
When I stand at the altar in St. Jean’s, I face the stained-glass window that’s above the ceremonial central door of the church. It depicts John the Baptist pointing at Jesus as he walks by. Andrew and another of John’s disciples look on. Under the scene are the words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Those are our words of welcome to the visitor, the stranger, Christian and non-Christian.
Behind me, on the high altar with its gleaming sunburst monstrance some forty feet above the sanctuary floor, John the Baptist appears again. He stands at the base of the sun with his arm stretched up above his head. His index finger points to the host at the center of the sun. Here, he witnesses to Jesus a second time, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
In the evangelist’s account of this moment, Andrew and the other disciple followed after Jesus as soon as they heard John’s testimony. After a few moments Jesus turned around, looked at them, and asked, “What are you looking for?”
Jesus asks the same question of everyone who walks into our churches. These words define our ministry. Through us, Jesus gives the same answer he gave to Andrew and the other disciple, “Come, and you will see.”
As we begin a new year, let’s recommit ourselves to Father Eymard’s ministry of invitation and welcome. Let’s raise our arms and silently point to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Let’s invite everyone, and anyone, to bring their burdens, to lay them at the feet of the Lamb. Let’s encourage them to breathe deeply, to fill their lungs with the breath of the Spirit. Let’s help them listen to him. “Behold, I make all things new.”
Balaam gave voice to this oracle:
“The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor, the utterance of the man whose eye is true, the utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what the most high knows, the one who sees what the almighty sees, enraptured and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel…”
ith this famous oracle from the Book of Numbers in his mind’s eye, Matthew began writing his narrative of the birth of Jesus. The prophecy was delivered by Balaam, a Moabite prophet. The Israelites, having fled from their slavery in Egypt, were en route to Canaan, the “Promised Land.” Their migration led them to the plain of Moab, northeast of the Dead Sea. There, they requested permission from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, to allow them passage through his land, but he would not permit them. Israel then battled against him, and conquered his army. Shortly after, Israel fought against Og, the king of Bashan, and conquered him.
Learning of the defeat of Sihon and Og, Balak, the king of Moab, summoned his court prophet, Balaam. He commanded him to curse the armies of Israel. But every time Balaam tried to utter a curse against Israel, a blessing came out instead. The fourth, and last, “curse” became the prophecy that Matthew used as the inspiration for his infancy narrative. “I see him, though not now; I behold him though not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” Balaam had looked into the dark cloud of the future, and saw a light, a great ruler who would emerge from the Jewish people. When Balaam could not curse the Israelites, Balak became frightened and withdrew his forces, leaving them in peace. During the Israelites sojourn in Moab, Moses died, and was succeeded by Joshua. He eventually led the people into Canaan, the “Promised Land.”
Matthew’s infancy narrative is a short, sacred drama bound together by a series of divine revelations that manifest themselves in dreams. Joseph had three dreams, and the magi another. This was much the same way that Luke’s narrative will use three angelic visitations, one to Zachariah, another to Mary and the third to the shepherds, to develop his story of the birth of Jesus.
Matthew began the narrative with a short introduction. “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” Notice that from the very beginning Matthew called Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. After this very brief introduction, he began the narrative.
Joseph had discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant. He had decided to divorce her quietly, but he had a dream. An angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because she was pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was told to name her child Jesus, Joshua in Hebrew. Matthew stressed that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
Matthew then gracefully introduced a number of themes. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of king Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’” He tells us where Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. Notice that there was no census, as in Luke’s Gospel, compelling the family to travel there. He didn’t name the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Instead, he mentioned Herod who was the king of Judea at the time. He will become a central figure in Matthew’s narrative.
Perhaps as long as two years after the birth of Jesus, a group of magi, astrologers from the east, arrived in Jerusalem in search of a newborn king of the Jews. These men weren’t Jews. Matthew may have been referencing Persian, Zoroastrian mystics. They were stargazers. The star the magi were following was a cosmic phenomenon, but they had connected its appearance to the birth of a great king. This prophetic star led them to Judea, the land of the Jews. They thought they would find the newborn king in the capital city, but they walked into the lair of an evil king who wanted only the destruction of this would-be “King of the Jews.”
Throughout his Gospel Matthew consistently presented Jesus as the new Moses. In light of this, King Herod immediately takes on the image of the heartless Pharaoh in the Exodus story who tried to eliminate the Jewish people by killing their newly-born male children. Jesus would become a great liberator, even greater than Moses. He would lead a New Israel to a promised land that had no national borders. Jesus referred to it as the Kingdom of God.
Herod immediately called the religious leaders together to ascertain from them where the Messiah would be born.
They quoted a yet another prophecy. Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, was the place. Asking the magi to return to him so that he could “go and do him homage,” Herod sent them off to find the child for him. After their audience, the magi again followed the star. “They were overjoyed at seeing the star and on entering the house saw the child with Mary his mother.” They prostrated themselves before him as one would before a great potentate. They offered three prophetic gifts: myrrh, frankincense and gold.
This child’s death would be central to his life and mission, so they presented him with myrrh, the ointment used for healing and embalming. This child was no ordinary child, he was divine. So, they offered him incense. This child was a king. They gave him the royal gift of gold.
These visitors from the east were not Jews. Yet they, unlike the people of Jerusalem, weren’t “troubled” over his birth. They recognized this divine king, and paid homage to him.
Looking ahead to the end of his Gospel, we note that Matthew concluded his drama of redemption with a pagan centurion’s profession of faith. When he witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross the centurion proclaimed: “Truly, this was the Son of God.” Jesus was not only “The king of the Jews” as the plaque on his cross asserted. He was truly “the Son of God.”
A dream warned the magi not to return to Herod, but to go home by an alternate route. They had witnessed the cosmic event, the birth of the new star. They saw the newborn King of the Jews. They had peered into his future. They had intimated his redemptive death. They returned to a world that had never heard about a Savior, but they brought with them the Good News of his birth.
Matthew ended his infancy narrative with several allusions to the Exodus event. An angelic messenger returned to Joseph in a dream telling him to flee to Egypt. The young family fled, under the cover of night, to the land from which their ancestors had fled on the night of the Exodus centuries before. Meanwhile, Herod, infuriated by the deception of the magi, ordered “the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity.”
The family stayed in Egypt until an angel again came to Joseph in a dream reporting that Herod had died; it was time to leave. Returning to Judah, they discovered that Herod’s son, Archelaus, had replaced him. Joseph feared him, and hesitated to return. In yet another dream, an angelic messenger directed him to settle in Galilee.
Matthew concluded his narrative in the same way he began it, with a reference to a prophecy. “He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’”
For Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s yearning for liberation and redemption. All the past prophecies came to fruition in him. But his coming was tinged with sadness. The people of the covenant would ultimately not receive him.
However, there was reason to rejoice. The Messiah would not only offer freedom and redemption to the Jewish people, he would offer salvation to all people. On the cross, the Divine Messiah would stretch out his arms to everyone. This was the greatest moment in history. Even the stars celebrated.
NUMBERS 6:22-27 | GALATIANS 44-7 | LUKE 2:16-21
The short gospel passage we’re reading on this Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, is the conclusion of Luke’s nativity narrative. Its five short sentences are a treasury of insight and teaching. As we begin our reflection on the passage we must keep in mind that Luke isn’t simply reporting events. He’s writing a narrative containing his insights into the person of Jesus, and Jesus’ role in the Christian community.
In the dead of night, angels appeared in the light of God’s glory to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks and announced: “Today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Overwhelmed and excited by the message, they went in search of the sign. It was just as the angels described, an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They saw, too, Mary and Joseph. The shepherds told them, and everyone else around, what the angel had told them. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” The shepherds returned home telling everyone what they had seen and heard.
The sign, an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, contains Luke’s entire gospel message. This child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, will be wrapped again in cloth – the cloth of his shroud. This child, this Messiah, is the lamb of God. His death on the cross will redeem not only his own people waiting for redemption, but all humankind, past, present and future. The Lord’s blood, shed on the cross, will be the sacrificial blood that will seal a new covenant with God, a covenant of love that can never be broken.
The Lamb of God, the Messiah and Lord, who, at his birth, was laid in a manger, will be the source of life-giving nourishment for anyone who welcomes him, and believes in him. He will break bread with them. He will tell them, “This is my body, which will be given for you.” His disciples will break the bread as he did, and they will break themselves for others in loving memory of him. They, like the shepherds, will give witness to all that they’ve seen and heard.
Mary, gazing on the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, is Luke’s image of the Church. She is everyone who believes in him and who, throughout the ages, will hold this image in their hearts and share it with anyone who will listen. Mary is all of us who will come together to break the bread, to share it and to renew the covenant of love.
As we remember Mary today, and as we begin a new year, let’s place the image of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger deep in our hearts. This is the Good News, this is the gospel we preach. This is what we celebrate every time we gather to break the bread. As the year goes on, may each of us, in our own way, witness to this good news. May we be light for the world and a continual source of hope to all. Happy new year!