ISAIAH 42:1-4,6-7. ACTS 10:34-38 MARK 1:7-13
I want to focus my reflection this week on one line from the Gospel. “I have baptized you with water, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is John the Baptist speaking of Jesus. He’s distinguishing what he’s been doing from what Jesus will do.
John’s baptism was a spiritual exercise. He asked people to give up their attachments to the dark things of the world, to redirect their lives and to live in the light of the Lord. His baptism, symbolically washed away past sins so that people might be ready for the new baptism that Jesus would bring. He refers to this as baptism with the Holy Spirit. What is this?
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a life-altering experience that releases the spiritual gifts that each of us has been given by God. The Holy Spirit, working within and through us, frees us to be the hands of Christ.
Remember how Jesus laid hands on the sick and healing power flowed through him. When we’re baptized with the Holy Spirit we are gifted with special attributes: to really know God in our hearts, to be able to pray from the heart, to recognize God’s presence in the world and in our lives, the ability to give counsel and instruction to others, the ability to heal and to liberate others from the
powers of darkness. These gifts may sound heavy duty and not at all in the realm of possibility for me, but the Holy Spirit can and will work though every one of us.
Most of the time the Spirit’s work is quite subtle. But it demands that we be disposed to it. This can demand a great deal from us because we must stop focusing on ourselves and redirect our energies to others. This is the gift of self. When we succumb to the Spirit, the Spirit will gently touch others through us. That’s when our hands become the hands of Christ.
St. Peter, in his second letter, reminds all of us of our special relationship to God and to one another through the Spirit. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, let’s invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. Let’s pray for the liberation of our gifts. Let’s commit ourselves to be the hands of Christ. Let’s begin our work in the vineyard of the Lord. Let’s work with the Spirit to manifest the kingdom of God on earth.
ISAIAH 60:1-6 EPHESIANS 3:2-3A, 5-6 MATTHEW 2:1-12
Here we are at the end of the Christmas Season. We’re celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, sometimes called “Little Christmas.” In fact, this is the day the Orthodox Churches celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The account of the Epiphany is found in Matthew’s Gospel.
Shortly after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi “from the East,” most likely Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, arrived in Jerusalem. Everyone took great interest in their arrival because they came looking for information about a newly born king. As Matthew puts it, “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
I can understand why Herod was “greatly troubled.” As he aged he became more and more mentally unhinged. He was a narcissistic personality to begin with, but as he aged, he became increasingly paranoid. He murdered his wife, her two sons, her mother, brother and grandfather. He constructed elaborate fortresses throughout the country that were meant to be places of refuge for him should he ever need to flee Jerusalem. The possibility of a rival king ignited his paranoia.
I wonder, though, why everyone else was “greatly troubled.” The religious leaders, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes would have been put off by these star-gazing pagans announcing the birth of a Jewish king. If their prediction were true, he could threaten their grip on the people. But I wonder about the other people in Jerusalem – the common people. How were they “greatly troubled?” The phrase “greatly troubled” is used several times in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Zachariah, Mary and the shepherds are said to be “greatly troubled” when they’re greeted by the an
gel Gabriel. The angel’s response to each of them was exactly the same, “Do not be afraid.” This tells us a great deal. The angel is warning them that fear will block their hearts and minds from receiving his message of joy and hope.
Herod and the religious leaders remained troubled because they gave into their fear, a fear that they might lose their power. The ordinary people had no power to lose. The appearance of these exotic magi with their message of a newborn king would have immediately caught their attention. These people had no love for Herod or the religious leaders. They were suffering under Rome’s oppressive occupation and an ultraconservative religious regime. Could this star that guided the magi really be announcing the birth of a messianic leader and the beginning of a new time? They would certainly have remembered the prophecy about this. “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.” (Numbers 24:17) The common people weren’t afraid. The magi’s message filled them with hope.
It’s so interesting that we can read these same scriptures every year, and every year find a new level of meaning in them. While we’re read the Epiphany story today, our entire nation is “greatly distressed.” We’ve suffered through so much this year. We’re afraid of the strife and political upheaval we’re experiencing. We’re afraid of the pandemic that threatens our lives and the lives of people we love. We’re afraid for our jobs and our livelihoods. We need to take the angel’s message to heart, “Do not be afraid.”
In your heart, let go of the things you’re afraid to lose. Raise your eyes. Gaze at the star. Allow yourself to feel its joy of hope. It’s the star that guided the magi to the King. It’s the star that will lead us to his new world.
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.