THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
GENESIS 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18. ROMAN 8:31B-34 MARK 9:2-10
In the gospel narratives, the transfiguration of Jesus is a prelude to the resurrection to come. After the three disciples had witnessed his transfiguration Jesus told them not to say anything about what they had seen. Mark ends the passage by commenting that “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” This comment throws a challenge our way. We, like those disciples, must discover what the resurrection means.
Every year, for a period of forty days, we dedicate ourselves to acts of penance and fasting to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Have you ever asked yourself why we go through all of this just to celebrate a moment in ancient history?
Actually, we’re not celebrating a historical anniversary. Fasting and penance are the tools, along with prayer and acts of charity, that we use to lift ourselves from the earthly plain to the spiritual plain the eternal now. This is where we discover the meaning of “rising from the dead.”
We can, and should, remember Jesus as an historical figure. He was a teacher, healer and miracle worker. He was betrayed by one of his followers, and sadistically executed. This is the story of the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.
The accounts of his resurrection and appearances to his disciples give witness to a Jesus liberated from the constraints of the historical plain. He appears to his disciples while they’re in hiding in the upper room. He teaches them. He eats with them. He appears to two of them as they flee Jerusalem. He teaches them and breaks bread with them. He promises that he’ll be with them until the end of time. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus, the universal Christ. He’s no longer bound by the restrictions of space and time.
The transfiguration is an icon of the resurrected Christ who in union with all of salvation history, past and present. In the eternal now, he’s in conversation with Moses and Elijah while still present to the three disciples who came with him to the mountaintop. This is the Jesus who said “this is my body – this is my blood” at the Last Supper. This is the resurrected Christ who speaks those same words at our Eucharist.
Lent is our communal retreat when we contemplate the meaning of the resurrection. This comes through prayer and an inner purification that frees us to love more deeply – to love as Jesus loved – unconditionally.
Lent is the time when Christians stop to reflect on the meaning of “rising from the dead.” The transfiguration is the icon the Church gives us for our contemplation. This image of the resurrected Christ is our invitation to transcend the earthly plain and to follow him.
GENESIS 9:8-15 1 PETER 3:18-22 MARK 1:12-15
Here we are marking the First Sunday in Lent. Last year we couldn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday, and we couldn’t celebrate Holy Week. It seems like we’ve been trapped in a year that never ends. The account of Christ in the desert is an appropriate image of what we’ve been experiencing. It has been a year of endless “temptation.”
What the gospel narrates can be applied so easily to us and our experience. “The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan.”
I personally believe that we’re experiencing a Spirit-directed time of temptation. But we must remember that with the temptation comes God’s grace. We’ve been forced to realize how fragile our health is. At the same time, we’ve been forced to see how fragile our country is. Our time of temptation isn’t over. Covid still rages, and the battle to preserve our democracy continues. We’re still in the desert.
The evangelist adds an important sentence to his account of Christ’s temptation that we need to note: “He was among the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.”
Here, Mark is recalling Isaiah’s prophecy of universal peace when the lion and lamb will live together in a new world – the kingdom of God. The angels who come to minister to him during his temptation will again minister to Jesus during his final temptation in the garden of Gethsemane as he begins his Passover into the new Eden. Mark is telling us that a
time of temptation always opens up to a time of grace.
This year’s 40 days of Lent are, perhaps, the most important time we’re ever going to experience. Temptations are sent to us to make us strong. We’re being challenged to renew our faith with a vigor and fervor we’ve never imagined. But the Spirit is with us in our temptation. We’re being guided by that same Spirit to open our eyes – to envision, maybe for the first time, the world God intended for us – the kingdom of God. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “the world as we know it is passing.” May his kingdom come.
Heavenly Father, I pray your Son’s prayer in a special way today. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” May Christians, and all people of good faith, join together as brothers and sisters united in love for one another. May the sacrifices we make for the good of all help to bring about your reign, your kingdom on earth.
LEVITICUS 13:1-2,44-46. 1 CORINTHIANS 10:31-11:1 MARK 1:40-45
In today’s gospel passage we’re told about Jesus curing a person with leprosy. But before we reflect on this particular cure let’s look at the social dynamic surrounding the disease during the time of Jesus. The medicines we have today that cure Hansen’s disease, called leprosy in the bible, were not available in Jesus’ day. There was tremendous fear of this disease.
It was incurable and fatal. It manifested itself in discolored patches on the skin, nodules, lumps on the face or earlobes, loss of eyebrows or eyelashes and stiff or dry skin. It was known that the disease was contagious but there was little scientific knowledge about the process of contagion. Leprosy was so feared that people afflicted with the disease were required to segregate themselves from society. Once diagnosed, they would never be allowed to return to their families.
Today we know that leprosy isn’t as highly contagious as the people in Jesus’ time thought. We now know that it’s spread by contact with the droplets from the mouth and nose when a person coughs or sneezes. Eating from a common dish or sharing utensils are high risk for contagion. It’s believed that Damien of Molokai contracted the disease by sharing his pipe and eating poi from the common dish. But in Jesus’ day it was believed that even a breeze that had touched a leper could carry the disease. That’s why lepers were required to shout “unclean” when they came near a town or village. The gradual degeneration of the body was a terrible part of the disease, but the social isolation was, perhaps, even more painful.
We can all relate to this aspect of the leper’s suffering, though in a lesser way. A year of living with Covid 19 and maintaining “social distancing” has brought depression and anxiety to most of us. The lack of human contact, socially and physically, is a source of terrible suffering. That’s why there’s so much protest against the practice of solitary confinement in our prisons, especially for teenage prisoners. It’s generally condemned by psychologists as inhumane. Some people consider it torture.
With all this in mind we can now look at Jesus’ encounter with the man suffering with leprosy. “A leper came up to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’” This seems natural enough to us, but not to the people standing with Jesus. A leprous man running through the crowd to get to Jesus must have caused tremendous panic. The entire 13th and 14 th chapters of the Book of Leviticus contains the instructions concerning lepers. Stemming from those chapters it was common practice that a distance of no less than sixteen feet be maintained between a leper and a healthy person.
Jesus remained alone with the man. From a safe distance everyone watched. What happened next would have brought an audible gasp from the crowd. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I
do will it. Be made clean.’”
According to the Law, Jesus would have, besides possibly contracting the disease, been instantly made ritually “unclean” himself, and would have had to go through a lengthy period of quarantine. The crowd watched as the man’s skin cleared. He was made whole and healthy again! In awestruck silence they listened as Jesus instructed the man to follow the laws from the Book of Leviticus, and to present himself to the priests who would proclaim him cured.
Let’s begin our reflection on this healing by applying it, first of all, to our society. Let’s, in the quiet of our hearts, ponder a few questions.
Who are the lepers of our day – the people we’re afraid to touch? Why are we afraid of them? What’s their status in our society? What does Jesus’ response to the leper teach us about our relationship with these “outcasts?”
It was a shocking and powerful moment when Jesus touched the leper. So, besides applying the account to our society, let’s also apply it to our personal lives. I’m going to conclude this reflection by sharing two “touching” moments in my own life. I encourage you to call to mind powerful “touching” moments in your own lives, too.
My sister called me to come to Wyckoff hospital in Brooklyn. Mom had suffered a stroke while in her doctor’s office. It took what seemed like hours to get there. I found my sister with her. My father was with the doctor.
I walked over to the gurney. Mom was sitting up. She looked at me and barely smiled a crooked smile. She looked at me with glassy, far away eyes, but I know she saw me. She reached out her hand and put it to my cheek for three, maybe four seconds before she began to get sick. A nurse came over to help her. My sister and I stood back. Mom slipped into a coma and died ten days later. She was 65. It would take a book for me to tell you what was contained in that touch. It spoke understanding. It spoke unconditional love. It said goodbye.
Years later, I was called to the home of a man in his 40’s who was dying. He had AIDS. He was lying on the living room sofa when I arrived. The friend who had called was with him. We talked a polite talk for a while. I sat down at the end of the sofa near his feet. We continued our polite talk a little longer. He began to tire so I said good-bye and left.
The next day his friend called me, thanking me profusely for visiting. He said that his friend was deeply moved by what I did. “What did I do?’ I asked. “When you sat down you began to rub his bare feet. For a nanosecond I was at the Last Supper. I believe that, during that short visit, both of us were healed.
JOB 7:1-4, 6-7 1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-19 MARK 1:29-39
Today’s Gospel continues to report the events of Jesus’ first day of ministry. We read last week that he went to the synagogue in Capernaum for the Morning Prayer and then addressed the congregants. They were quite struck by the simplicity and authority with which he spoke. He wasn’t at all like the religious leaders. He also liberated a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Leaving the man’s body, the spirit cried out that Jesus was “the Holy One of God.” We’re told that, because of these events, “his fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”
The dramatic events of the day continued after the Morning Service as Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John left the synagogue. They went to Simon’s home for the Sabbath meal. What took place in the synagogue was a public presentation of Jesus’ ministry. What took place at Simon’s home was just the opposite – it was an intimate teaching for this new family of disciples. As soon as Jesus arrived the people in the house told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a fever.
In Jesus’ day medicine was mixed with magic and incantations. A fever was cured by using a lock of hair from the sick person to tie an iron knife onto a thorn bush. The person returned to the bush for three consecutive days, each day quoting a portion of the account of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush. There were times Jesus used common techniques to cure. There is an instance when he made mud with his saliva and smeared it on the eye lids of a man born blind. He then told the man to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Another time he put his fingers into the ears of a man who was deaf and mute and then put his saliva on the man’s tongue. Most of the time, however, Jesus cured with a mere command or a touch.
As soon as he heard of the fever Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering, he went to her, “grasped her hand and helped her up.” The cure was as simple as that. Jesus spoke no words or incantations. He said no prayers. It all seemed so natural. It was the Sabbath. Jesus and his four new disciples came to the house to partake in the
Sabbath meal. It was a special meal, a sacred meal, an essential element of the Shabbat Shalom, the sharing in the peaceful rest God took on the day after the creation of the world. Jesus restored her to her ministry of preparing the sacred meal. “The fever left her and she waited on them.”
There’s a lesson behind this healing. His first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John would, one day, discover that they couldn’t continue their ministry relying solely on their own strength. They would personally need the powerful, healing touch of Jesus. Only then would they be strong. Only then could the power of Jesus work through them.
At sundown of that same day, when the Sabbath rest was over, the people from the surrounding area came to the house bringing with them, the sick and possessed. He cured them all. We have to note the difference between the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and the healing of the people. The people came to Jesus to get something from him. He cured their sick; they were happy and returned to their ordinary lives. Simon’s mother-in-law was cured and immediately began to minister to Jesus and his disciples. This is the second lesson we can draw from this remarkable day. If we’ve been touched by the healing hand of Jesus we’ve also been called to minister to others. Maybe we could say that our healing is the invitation to to follow him – to take up his ministry.
DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20 1 CORINTHIANS 7:32-35 MARK 1:21-28
For the past two weeks we’ve focused our attention on accounts of the call of the apostles. Today we begin a year-long reflection on Jesus’ ministry as it’s presented in the gospel of Mark. His presentation is the most economical of all the evangelists. For example, in just twenty verses of his first chapter he describes John the Baptist and his ministry, the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the desert and the call of the first apostles. In verse twenty-one of that same chapter, he begins his presentation of Jesus’ ministry. Today we’ll reflect on Mark’s account of the first day of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus was an itinerate preacher. He taught on hill- sides, along the Sea of Galilee and in the neighborhood synagogues. He began his ministry by visiting the syna- gogue in Capernaum. For us to get a good picture of what happened there we need to understand the role of the synagogue in Jesus’ day.
We tend to think of the synagogue as a Jewish church, with a rabbi functioning in a way similar to a priest or minister. This is somewhat true of the synagogue of to- day, but in Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was THE center of prayer and worship. There, the great liturgical feasts were celebrated with solemnity and music. There, the daily sacrifices were offered by the priests. Unlike the temple, the synagogue wasn’t primarily a place of prayer, though morning, afternoon and evening prayers were recited there.
By law, every Jewish community of at least ten households were obliged to have a synagogue. It was essentially an edu- cational institution and functioned like a community center. It was led by the President who was responsible for the schedule of prayer and the daily distri- bution of alms. He was assisted by the Minister who cared for the sacred scrolls, the maintenance of the building and the education of the children. However, the synagogue didn’t have a resident preacher/ rabbi as it does today. It was up to the President to estab- lish a roster of speakers who would be competent to preach to the community on the Sabbath.
We have to remember that the Torah, the first five books of the bible, were revered as the direct instruction of God. The devout Jew devoted his life to the study of the Torah and its interpretation, called the Talmud. Over time, a group of scholars developed, called the scribes. They were the experts in the Torah, the Law. They ex- tracted rules and regulations from the Law and were al- ways ready to find additional ways to expand them. They were responsible for evolving the commandments from the ten articulated in the bible to 613! They, with the assistance of the Pharisees, managed to deconstruct Judaism into a mass of legalistic hoops. When Jesus preached in the synagogue in Capernaum that Sabbath day, everyone immediately knew that he was special.
The congregants exclaimed, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Jesus’ message was fresh and from the heart. He didn’t generate new laws for the people to follow. He enriched the princi- ples of the Law by adding compassion and love to them. As he would later teach, “I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” He freed the peoples’ spirits by lifting the heavy weight of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees laid on them. He called them to a new way of life. “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves, for MY yoke is easy, and MY burden light.” He not only preached a different message from the scribes, he backed up his message with tremendous spiri- tual power. That day he showed that he was a pow- erful exorcist.
There was a man in the synagogue with “an un- clean spirit.” As soon as he saw Jesus the spirit that possessed him gave testimony to Jesus. The man shouted out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Jesus issued a sim- ple response. “Quiet! Come out of him.”
What have we learned from this first day of Jesus’ ministry? We’ve learned that Jesus was a breath of fresh air for the people of his day. Some kind of change was coming, the people could feel it in the compassion and loving concern that Jesus gener- ated. He spoke his message from the heart. It was a message of hope and love. The kingdom of God was at hand.
There was power behind Jesus’ message, even the spirits of darkness recognized it. The spirit in the possessed man called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The spirit acknowledged that Jesus had power over him, and even asked if he had come to destroy him.
For us, the lesson from this first day of Jesus’ ministry is clear and simple. If we’re going to take up the ministry of Jesus we must be of like spirit: com- passionate, hopeful and loving. His ministry was a ministry of the heart. If we’re to follow him we must liberate our hearts by accepting God’s unconditional and transformative love. That’s the first step in an- swering his call. The second step is to become a con- duit of God’s love for those who are searching for God, or for those whose hope is weak or depleted.
By our Christ-like lives we can join him in build- ing the kingdom of God on earth one day at a time.
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
This week’s scriptures continue the theme of call to mission. Last Sunday, we reflected on John’s account of the call of the apostles Andrew, Simon Peter and another disciple. This week Mark presents his version of the call of those apostles. The style of the call differs in the accounts. Mark presents Jesus directly calling these men to join him in his mission. In John’s account Jesus doesn’t directly call the apostles. Rather, John the Baptist witnesses publically that Jesus is “the Lamb of God.” Those who hear his witness begin to follow Jesus. Andrew then announces to his brother Simon that he has “found the Messiah.” He then introduces Simon to Jesus.
The different styles of the call reflect the nature of the call as it exists today. Some of us may have “heard the call” in our hearts. Some of us
have been led to the discovery of Jesus though friends, family or teachers. The call comes to each of us in various ways. Our acceptance of that call gives us a share in the ministry of Jesus……and we take up the work of the kingdom. This raises a question. What is the work of the kingdom? The answer to that question will differ from generation to generation because the world and its struggles will differ from one period of time to another. The principle that’s the foundation for our kingdom work is articulated by St. Paul in the short passage from his first letter to the Corinthians that we read today. “The world in its present form is passing away.”
As we work for the kingdom we continually chip away at the world and its imperfect structures. As Jesus taught us, our work will transform the world slowly and mysteriously, the way the presence of yeast transforms flour. Change is the foundation of the kingdom. This brings us to the reflection for today.
We know that the world we live in isn’t perfect. But if we look over the millennia that have preceded us we see constant change. Life is getting better, little by little. Though ignorance, injustice, poverty, inequality and racism continue to have a hold on our lives, we can still say that life has been gradually getting better on this planet. We
still have many serious challenges to continued progress, but we are, as the human family, moving along. Today we’re experiencing tremendous resistance and fear of progress of change.
The rise of populism throughout the world and, in our own country, the rise of violent white supremacy, give clear witness to that resistance and fear. Our work of preaching and witnessing to the principles of the kingdom is the leaven of hope and healing that the world needs in order to take its next step in our evolutionary journey.
I submitted this reflection for publication on January 19th, the day before the inauguration of our newly elected president. He’ll be taking office two weeks after an attempted coup by white supremacists. The resistance to healing and social progress is tremendous. It’s based on fear and fed by anger. On the eve of the inauguration I pray as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord. My reflection, today, is contained in the prayer I raise:
“Heavenly Father, I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ, your Son, sent to us as our guide and our strength. I reaffirm my commitment to him and to the principles of your kingdom: justice, inclusion, respect, equality, harmony, non-violence, and peace. I will do all in my power to work with you in transforming the world into your kingdom. Use me to heal the fear that breeds violence and hatred. May my love help to destroy the man -made walls that have separated and isolated us from each other for so long.
Heavenly Father, send your Spirit, the spirit of truth, into the hearts of our elected representatives. Give them the strength to stand for what is right and good. Give them the courage to lift up and liberate the poor and vulnerable among us.Bless all people of good will as we work for the coming of your kingdom.”
So may it be. Amen.
Give them, and all who work for the coming of your kingdom, the hope we need.
1 SAMUEL 3:3B-10, 19. 1 CORINTHIANS 6:13C-15A, 17-20 JOHN 1:35-42
What a wonderful Gospel passage we have to think about today – and every day! It’s John’s account of the “call” of the disciples. John’s approach to the topic is as different as night and day from the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Take note of the way the disciples are called in these Gospels.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells Peter and Andrew, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” In Mark’s account he tells Matthew, “Follow me!” In Luke’s account he tells Peter “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Jesus is direct and to the point – a tap on the shoulder and a command. Their approach makes me think of the numerous times people have asked me, “When did you hear the call?” I never heard a call! At least, not like the “call” Peter, Andrew and Matthew received. That’s why
I love the way John’s Gospel presents “the call.”
In John’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t call anybody! Instead, one person has an insight. John the Baptist, preaching near the Jordan River, spotted Jesus walking by. He immediately raised his arm and pointed to him saying to those around him, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” He wasn’t just noting Jesus’ presence. In that short phrase he was defining him. He identified Jesus and announced what his mission was – to be the sacrificial lamb. That one insight began a process of discovery.
Andrew and another disciple heard John. Their interest peeked, they followed after Jesus who eventually turned around and asked them, “What are you looking for?” That was enough. They spent the day with him. After they left Jesus, Andrew found his brother Peter and told him that he had found the Messiah. He then brought
him to Jesus.
How simple! How wonderful! Most people don’t hear a voice from heaven calling them to follow Jesus or to take up a ministry. The call comes through people who have faith – who have identified Jesus and followed him. Their words and actions are a quiet invitation to follow.
How did you hear the call to follow Jesus? Whose words and actions opened your heart to Jesus? Take the time to think about it – lots of time – quality time. I bet you’ll discover that God works in marvelous ways!
PRAYER Heavenly Father, thank you for inviting me to follow you – to work for the coming of your kingdom. Please bless me in my work, and bless the people who have guided me, encouraged me and supported me.
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)