GENESIS 12:1-4A | 2 TIMOTHY 1:8B-10 | MATTHEW 17:1-9
God’s Word to us this first Sunday of our Lenten journey is very interesting. It begins with a passage from the book of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience. A reflection from Paul’s letter to the Romans regarding their sin follows. Finally, Mathew gives us an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. How do these fit together and what do they teach us?
The story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor for humankind’s struggle for connection with God. Eve is the spirit in each one of us that’s constantly reaching out to connect with God, symbolized, in the story, by the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam, his name means earth or soil, is that earthly part of us that needs redemption or inner liberation.
In the second scripture passage Paul shares a reflection with the Christian community in Rome. He presents Adam as a symbol of the human family’s struggle with sin defining Adam’s sin as disobedience or disharmony with the will of God. He then shines the light on Jesus as THE example of total obedience to God’s will. Disobedience is what brings sin and death into the world. Being in harmony with God’s will redeems one from sin and restores a life connected to God.
Now we come to Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus. The barren, hostile desert is the stage for the great test. A symbolic number is woven into the scene. The Jewish people were molded by many trials, struggles and even sins during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai Desert. Those years were a time
when the Spirit challenged their faith, strengthened them, purified them and formed them into a nation. Throughout their time of testing they were guided by the Spirit of God, the burning pillar of cloud.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is driven by that same Spirit into the desert where, for forty days, he confronts his inner demons. The voice of temptation is relentless. Over and over again the challenge comes: if you’re the son of God…prove it! Change these stones into bread! If you’re the Son of God…Prove it! Throw yourself off the roof of the temple; God won’t let you die. If you’re the Son of God… Prove it! Vanquish every earthly power. Let me crown you King of the entire world. If you’re the Son of God…Act like it!
Jesus conquers the temptation to power and fame. He hands himself over in complete obedience to the father’s will. Just before his death he will tell his disciples that “the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
We begin Lent with a call to follow Jesus, and like him, to face our inner demons. The Spirit will lead us just has he led the Jewish people, and Jesus, too, if we submit. Lent is the time when we Christians question the depth of our faith and the fervor of our commitment to the will of the Father. The Spirit is driving us into the desert for forty days. Let’s pray for each other during this time. As Paul instructs us: “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 17-18 | 1 CORINTHIANS 3:16-23 | MATTHEW 5:38-48
We have what we might consider HUGE commandments for reflection our today. The first sentence of the passage from Leviticus zings us with one big fat commandment, “BE HOLY for I, your God, am holy.” Jesus, piggy-backing on Leviticus, commands: “BE PERFECT, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Holy Moly! Where do we go from here? Holiness isn’t enough? We need to be perfect, too? Let’s not panic. Leviticus wasn’t commanding the impossible, and neither was Jesus. Let’s look a bit more closely at the passages.
The passage from Leviticus ends with the well-known commandment which most Christians attribute to Jesus but he was just quoting Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we look closely, we discover that this commandment has a narrow scope. It continues: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.” Holiness is narrowly connected with love of one’s “people.”
Jesus introduces his call to be perfect with a call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You may remember, when Jesus quoted this same passage from the book of Leviticus to the “teacher of the law” who asked him what the greatest commandment was, the lawyer immediately came back with a question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then laid the parable of the Good Samaritan on him.
Jesus connects holiness and perfection to
our relationship with one another, our friends and our foes alike. Later on, in that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that our heavenly Father “makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” He’s teaching us that to begin the journey toward holiness and perfection (our journey to God) our hearts must be open to everyone, people who don’t look like us, that don’t speak our language, that hate us, that want to do us harm, that hurt us and others.
During the weeks of Lent we will direct our reflection to the mystery of Christ – the mystery of death and resurrection. Each of us has been baptized into this mystery. Our commitment to Christ demands that we be holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect.
This Sunday is the last Sunday before we begin Lent, the forty days of personal prayer and contemplation on the mystery of death and resurrection. It’s also our communal time of penance and voluntary fasting. It’s so appropriate that we hear God’s challenge to be holy and perfect this Sunday. Our journey to God is going to take place one loving step at a time, one death and resurrection at a time. Being a Christian is a challenge, but it’s full of wonder and miracles and may God touch our hearts during this holy season. May Easter bring us new life.
SIRACH 15:15-20 | 1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-10 | MATTHEW 5:17-37
Jesus had just told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We heard that message last week. He immediately followed that wonderful declaration with a serious caution. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why was there so much antagonism between Jesus and the religious leaders? It had to do with religious laws.
The laws contained in the scriptures were considered the voice of God by the religious leadership, the scribes and the Pharisees, and by Jesus. The purpose of these scriptural laws was to lay out principles for harmonious living and personal spiritual development. They were broad so that they could be wisely applied to individual situations. But over time, the interpretations of these laws, these broad principles, were given as much weight as the original laws themselves.
Over time, the scribes and Pharisees squeezed every possible interpretation out of each law. They stretched the basic 10 commandments to 613 laws! This was only the tip of the religious iceberg. Many volumes of interpretations evolved over time, and each interpretation was followed by an interpretation of the interpretation. The law was meant as a universal spiritual guide for better living. The religious leaders, by their proliferation of laws, distracted the people from the beauty and simplicity of the spiritual principles. This was the core of the battle between Jesus and the religious leaders.
We can feel Jesus’ frustration as he continues his teaching. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus gets to the heart of it all. Following the law isn’t a matter of simply not killing. It’s the more serious matter of dealing with anger personal, national, international. “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother will be liable to judgment.”
He went on. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He continued by extending the law to marriage. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Remember that women in Jesus’ day had very few rights. Being written off by her husband a woman was condemned to a life of poverty and even more seriously, rejection by the community. The commandment wasn’t just about a legal relationship; it was a call for purity of heart and the challenge of emptying one’s life in love for another. The law was a call to respect the dignity of women. Once again, Jesus gets to the heart of the law. “I say to you, everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus added two thoughts that deepened this teaching. They were very important. “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The second seems simple, but it’s not a common practice. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” These two principles are the foundation of spiritual life. The commandments rest on them and receive life and spirit from them.
These aren’t easy teachings that we hear today, but if each one of us listens to them, really and honestly listens, each of us will hear a personal message. This is the marvel of Jesus’ teachings; they speak so personally. The law, as Jesus teaches it, challenges us to respect and love everyone including our enemies. He challenges us to value each other, to love purely. The law will point us to areas in our lives that need improvement and development. As Jesus said, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matthew 11:15)
ISAIAH 58:7-10 | 1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-5 | MATTHEW 5:13-16
Last week our reflection centered on the Beatitudes, the introduction to the new set of commandments Jesus was about to reveal to his disciples. In Matthew’s gospel this teaching extends thru chapters five, six and seven, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This week we will look at the first teaching.
Jesus taught by spinning parables and using memorable images. Today we pray with two images: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I say we pray with them because these images are meant to reach into our hearts. They’re meant to feed our souls and energize a response from us.
When we use the phrase: “He’s salt of the earth,” we mean that the person is good and wholesome, honest to the core and loveable. That’s an excellent interpretation, but there’s more to it. Salt has an effect on everything it touches. It has its own taste, a taste we often crave, and it also brings out the flavor of the food it touches. As the salt of the earth we’re in constant search for the divine essence that’s within us, and, following in the footsteps of Jesus, we reach out to season those who haven’t tasted the divine within themselves.
There’s another aspect of salt that was understood in Jesus’ day but lost to us. In the Middle East covenants were often consummated by each of the parties by eating salt. This was even celebrated in the Jewish liturgical tradition. Every animal sacrifice was salted before it was offered to God. This was called the Salt Covenant. The salt clinched the covenant between God and the people of Israel. Jesus is teaching us that we’re a sacred element that cansanctify, add the divine ingredient, not only to the people of the covenant but to the entire world!
If that’s not enough to think about, Jesus adds a second part to the teaching. “But what if salt loses its flavor? It is no long any good but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Remember Jesus always used very common examples to explain his teachings. This reference to salt losing its flavor has to do with cooking. Only the wealthy had full kitchens in their homes. Each village had its common oven that was kept burning all day. These ovens had to stay hot all day and ready to be used at any time. Salt was an excellent insulation for these communal ovens. Eventually, the salt would deteriorate. It would be replaced with fresh salt and the old salt that had lost its flavor (decomposed) was thrown on the ground around the oven and replaced. It had burned itself out. Jesus is encouraging us to carry on our mission of salting the earth for our entire lives.
Jesus reiterates this lesson with a second image, that of the lamp stand. We’re the light of the world! We’re to shine the divine light in every dark place. We’re never to hide it or be hesitant to let it shine. And we’re to shine for our entire lives.
These “commandments” are life-long challenges for disciples. Our personal prayer, our communal celebration of the Eucharist and our labor in the vineyard of the Lord work together in our personal development as disciples. The gospel invites today to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Together, and individually, let’s recommit to take up the mission of the Lord began.
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!
There were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the lord shown around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “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 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…”
When the angels went away from them to heaven the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go then to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in a manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:8-12, 15-19)
In this portion of the account of the birth of Jesus, Luke doesn’t relate this story as one would relate the stories on the 6 o’clock news. He’s creating a sacred narrative meant to teach the generations after him the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the narrative, the blinding light of God’s glory appears in the dead of night to simple shepherds. From within the light angels proclaim the good news of the birth of a Messiah who is Lord. They speak to them of a sign, an image, that will teach them all they need to know about this child. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke mentions this twice in this short account. The angels tell the shepherds of the sign. Then Luke tells us that the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the sign for themselves. Let’s look into the meaning of this sign.
The two images, the swaddling clothes and the manger, speak volumes about this child. The
clothes used to wrap the baby are long strips of cloth. They’re wrapped around an infant to keep it secure and warm. But these long strips are reminiscent of another long strip of cloth that would wrap this child at the end of his adult life. The swaddling clothes are an image of Jesus’ shroud. His destiny was marked from the first moment of his life. Luke is telling us that Jesus’ death is an essential part of the good news.
The second image is of the child lying in a manger. By placing the child in a manger, a feeding trough, Luke is telling us that the good news is that this child will be, in some mysterious way, food for all people. John the evangelist makes the same point in a title he gives to Jesus, the Bread of Life. The image of the manger evokes the eucharistic meal where Jesus breaks the bread, where Jesus says, “This is my body which will be given for you.” Where Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.”
These two images stir up rich theological reflection. Throughout his gospel Luke will expand the image of the manger through his depiction of many meals Jesus ate with his disciples. Each meal presents an aspect of the eucharist. The meaning of the manger and the swaddling clothes become clear when they again come together at the Passover meal Jesus eats with his disciples, his last supper with them before sacrificing himself on the cross.
At the end of his nativity narrative Luke adds an essential note. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary is the Church, you and I, and all those who, throughout the centuries heard of the child that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mary is all who gathered and who continue to gather to reflect on the meaning of his death when they come together to break the bread. Mary is all of us who recognize him. Recognize him when we pass on his story. Recognize him when we ponder the meaning of his death. Recognize him when we break the bread and share it.