As an altar boy back in the Latin days I picked up a lot of interesting data, a down payment for such things as getting up at 6 AM during Christmas vacation to serve the 7 AM daily Mass. People don’t realize how hard that was. It was not unusual for Buffalo to get a blockbuster snowfall during the night, and I would hoof through the dark, down the middle of my street between bumps in the snow where parked and abandoned cars were totally buried. I was never in harm’s way, as far as I could see. Today, of course, there would be all sorts of warnings and the like. Mass only lasted thirty-minutes, so I would swing by the bakery—that never closed either—and chow down for a day of fun in the snow.
Having served Mass for some years during the Christmas Season, I quickly noticed that the week between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 was chock full of major saints’ feasts. This was long before any college study in liturgy, when I would learn that the December 25 Feast of Christmas was a relatively later insertion into the Church’s days of observance. Christmas itself was not introduced into the Roman Catholic calendar until the fourth century. While there are a number of hypotheses as to why this particular date of December 25 was so chosen—ranging from attempts to reign in a pre-existing pagan Roman observance, to a coordination with another feast celebrating Jesus’ conception (i.e. the Annunciation as we know it today), the fact is that we are not really certain how December 25 became the established feast it is today.
Interestingly, the birth of Christ is not the only feast celebrated on December 25. If you own an old, pre-1970 missal, you will find that in the Christmas “Mass at Dawn” there is a second collect or prayer of the assembly commemorating St. Anastasia. At times in the Church’s early history the first Mass at Dawn was dedicated entirely to Anastasia’s memory. It is hard for us today to appreciate the devotion to this martyr in the city of Rome, and the church in her honor is accorded great esteem. Anastasia was so highly regarded that her name is placed in Eucharistic Prayer I:
To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, (Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia) and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company,85 not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.
It is interesting, too, that December 26 marks the feast of another saint whose name is included in the Mass with Anastasia, notably the deacon martyr Stephen. There is only one source for Stephen’s life and martyrdom, but it is the powerful and authoritative rendering of St. Luke himself in his canonical Acts of the Apostles. In chapters 6 and 7 we get a very descriptive narrative of the bearing of the saint and the content of his preaching when brought before Jewish authorities, who ultimately had him stoned. Stephen is honored today as the first Christian martyr, and his execution set into motion the energies of one of the participants, one Saul of Tarsus, who committed himself to a purging of Christian Jews, only to be dramatically converted into the one and only St. Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles and author of the first books (or letters) in the New Testament.
December 27 (today, as it happens) is the Feast of the St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel. Since 200 AD there has been considerable debate about the identity of the Gospel writer; the Roman Catholic tradition has maintained and continues to maintain that the Apostle John and the Evangelist John are one and the same. The critical point to bear in mind is that the Church, from the third century, has identified John’s Gospel as part of the inspired and divinely revealed Canon of belief—even if, for example, John died and the final draft of the Gospel was composed by his disciples.
In the Roman Catholic calendar December 28 marks the feast of the Holy Innocents, the boys two-years of age and younger who were put to death around Bethlehem when King Herod sought to eliminate the young Jesus to protect his own throne. Our only source for this massacre is St. Matthew’s infancy narrative, and while its historical roots are a bit misty, Matthew’s theological intent was to parallel the persecution of Jesus with the troubles of infant Moses, when Pharaoh put all young male Hebrew babies to the sword. The feast of the Innocents developed in the fifth century, and the date of observance falls fittingly in the Christmas octave.
December 29, by contrast, marks the observance of a more recent and rather well documented martyrdom of the English bishop, St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on December 29, 1170. Becket had been something of a compliant accomplice in King Henry II’s interference in matters of the English Church, but after his appointment to Canterbury he underwent a profound spiritual conversion and reasserted the rights and dignity of the Church. Henry, not surprisingly, took this as a personal betrayal, and supposedly uttered the famous phrase, “Who will rid me of this pest?” (This text, however, is disputed.) Several knights undertook to kill the archbishop in his cathedral, a double sacrilege, in a violent attack with axes. This act shocked all of Christian Europe, and devotion to the slain archbishop became a major staple of devotion. In our own time, T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral) and Jean Anouilh (Becket) have kept the story of Becket’s heroism alive in the arts.
And finally, on December 31, the Church observes the Feast of St. Sylvester, who died on December 31, 335 AD, after a reign as Bishop of Rome for twenty-one years. His reign was nothing if not momentous. He took the throne of Peter when the Church was still an illegal entity, and then coped with the Emperor Constantine’s micromanaging for most of his papacy. It was Constantine, and not Sylvester, who called the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Sylvester (possibly miffed?) did not attend the Council that defined the divinity of Christ, (he sent two legates in his place) though Wikipedia observes without comment that Sylvester “concurred with the results.” There is surprisingly little known of his life, but his sainthood is indication that he must have administered the keys of the kingdom with considerable grace in very trying times.
I missed posting yesterday as my Christmas shopping took a bit longer than I expected, and we attended the Vigil Mass in the late afternoon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Gospel of last night’s (and today’s) Masses is the famous scene from Luke’s Gospel we call the Visitation, recalled frequently during the year as the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. Come to think of it, all of the Joyful Mysteries are drawn from Luke; little wonder that throughout history the rosary has often been referred to as “the poor man’s Bible.”
On Friday I raised the discussion of the two different Christmas narratives in the Gospels, and outlined Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth as the New Moses. Liturgically speaking, however, it is Luke’s Gospel narrative that will carry most of the Church’s public observances up to the Eve of the Epiphany, an event reported only by Matthew. Our blog’s primary biblical source this year for Luke’s Gospel, Joel B. Green’s commentary, describes at some length Luke’s intentions as he creates a birth narrative that is distinct from Matthew’s on many points. Green observes that Luke wished to establish a literary and theological continuity between the Hebrew Scripture narrative of God’s saving deeds. Matthew chooses to do this in a somewhat businesslike fashion, opening his Gospel with the Genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17).
Luke’s Gospel does include a genealogy, but not in the Christmas narrative. It is located at the conclusion of Chapter 3 (3:23-38) and after the baptism of the adult Jesus as he begins his public ministry. There is another difference in the transmission of the family line, so to speak. Matthew begins the line with Abraham, but Luke begins with Adam. In the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours of December 17 I was surprised to see that the fifth century giant St. Leo the Great commented on this difference: “Matthew’s Gospel begins by setting out the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham, and then traces his human descent by bringing his ancestral line down to his mother’s husband, Joseph. On the other hand, Luke traces his parentage backward step by step to the actual father of mankind, to show that both the first and the last Adam share the same nature.” Jesus, the savior of Israel is indeed the savior of the human race.
Luke’s Christmas narrative is actually a lived genealogy, for truth be told, it begins in the Old Testament era with a high priest performing his sacred duty in the temple, a priest who would father the last of the great prophetic figures, his son John. In step with the events of the nativity of John will be the events of the nativity of Jesus. The key difference in the births in Luke’s narrative is the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. While Jesus himself would say years later that of men born of women there was none greater than John, Jesus himself is the sole divinely conceived human. Luke is the evangelist of the Holy Spirit in the way he personifies the Hebrew experience of the Spirit of God into the living Jesus of Nazareth. Luke has written a parallel narrative of John and Jesus which allows the reader to grasp how, even as a human, Jesus is the living breath of God.
I should add here that in Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, his work opens with another overpowering of the Holy Spirit, this time upon the Twelve in the upper room in the event we know as Pentecost. This is Luke’s way of maintaining Jesus’ continuity and the Spirit’s work in the community he left behind, namely the Church.
The Lukan Christmas narrative itself is very compelling. Zachary, husband of Elizabeth, experiences his once-in-a-lifetime moment to enter the holy of holies in the temple. In that moment, he encounters the angel Gabriel, who announces to him that he and his wife, childless and along in years, will conceive a son who will be “great in the eyes of the Lord.” Gabriel is displeased with Zachary’s doubts about fathering a child at this point in his life, and the priest is struck dumb. Luke is careful to note that their child is conceived in the normal fashion, angelic announcement notwithstanding.
Six months later the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the scene we know quite well, the Annunciation. Interestingly, Mary’s question to Gabriel sounds a lot like Zachary’s (i.e., how will this happen?) but her question gives Gabriel the opportunity to establish without any doubt the divine paternity—and thus establishes Jesus’ conception as unique from John’s.
In the scene from today’s Gospel, Mary rushes to see her cousin Elizabeth. When they encounter each other, Elizabeth reports that the child she is carrying leaped in her womb. This event was predicted in 1:15 when Gabriel had told Zachary that his son “will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.” Elizabeth has quite a bit to say here, something of a theological interpreter of what is happening to both of them. (There is a touch of the Shakespearean in this visitation scene.) Mary’s response to her cousin is the majestic “Magnificat,” an embodiment of thanks and hope in the promises of God.
In the established time line Zechariah’s son is born first, to great family and neighborly fanfare. Having been struck dumb, Zechariah cannot easily explain either the vision of Gabriel or the child’s preordained name, which leads to the dramatic scene on circumcision day where he takes a tablet and writes solemnly, “His name is John,” confirming what his wife had been declaring to no avail. Zechariah’s tongue is loosened and he is permitted to speak, and does he ever, proclaiming what has come down to us as “Zechariah’s Canticle,” the hymn prayed at the Church’s morning prayer every day. Luke then dismisses John from the narrative, reporting that he lived in the desert until his adult public appearance years later.
Three months later Joseph and Mary journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Obviously they would not have done this on their own, but living in an occupied country, they are ordered to do so, probably for tax purposes. Luke, of course, wants to emphasize the city of Bethlehem because of Micah’s prophesy (the one that had rattled King Herod in Matthew’s account) and its connection to the Davidic line. It is here in Bethlehem that Mary gives birth to her son in the forlorn setting of a barn. Luke explains simply that there was no room in the travelers’ lodge, though the symbolism of Jesus’ birth in humble circumstances is certainly consistent with Jesus’ later ministry to the poor in this Gospel. (If Joseph was indeed a carpenter—a homebuilder in today’s lingo—and he was summoned for a tax reporting, he was not a poor man by any stretch.)
Unlike John’s birth among family and neighbors, Jesus and his parents are alone, which gives Luke the opportunity to create the narration of the angel to the shepherds. There is a parallel here to Elizabeth, who served as a useful guide to explaining events. The angel (possibly Gabriel?) explains the nature of Jesus as Savior to awestruck shepherds in the vicinity. In truth, the angel does not command them to go—but they do so of their own volition, and upon their visit, “they understood what had been told them concerning this child.”
In contrast to John’s circumcision narrative, Luke devotes all of one line to Jesus’ circumcision, commenting only that the name had been provided by the angel before his conception.
In keeping with his desire to maintain continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, Luke includes two visits to the temple in Jerusalem. The first, in Jesus’ infancy, is made in accordance with Jewish law that “every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord.” It is during this visit that two Jews of impeccable faith and observance, Simeon and Anna, true people of the temple, thank God for the birth of the child and proclaim his great future. The second visit recorded by Luke takes place when Jesus is twelve, and his parents travel to Jerusalem for Passover. This is the episode where Jesus disappears for three days and is discovered listening to the temple teachers and asking questions perhaps precociously for his age, as he drew admiration for his intelligence and answers. His parents, according to the text, were less pleased, and Mary is not surprisingly vocal about his unexplained three-day absence from the travelers’ entourage.
Luke closes the infancy narratives in a satisfying way. Jesus explains to his parents that the temple and its religion would be the focus of his future, but he returned to Nazareth with his parents “and was obedient to them. Luke concludes that Jesus progressed steadily “in wisdom and age and grace.” Centuries later, when Thomas Jefferson produced a bowdlerized New Testament which denied the divinity of Christ, he edited Luke’s text to read that Jesus progressed “In wisdom and age.”
I will be away tomorrow (Monday) but will post again on Tuesday.
Advent is a time of prime exposure of John the Baptist in the Liturgy of the Church, as in today’s Gospel from Luke. The general portrayal of the Baptist in preaching and catechetics is of a powerful forerunner of Jesus who disappears from the scene in a violent death at the hands of an intoxicated yet grim King Herod. The origins, life, and death of John the Baptist, and particularly his relationship with Jesus in terms of vision and ministry, is extremely complex. I am using Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994) as my prime source today.
Meier finds no indication that John’s roots go back to a peculiar apocalyptic strain of Jews known as the Essenes. In the mid-20th century, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was much speculation that John had been formed in an Essene culture: isolated from Jerusalem, living like monks, engaging in frequent ritual baths to purify themselves for the wrath of God’s deliverer who is to come. While John shares an Essene outlook for the future, there are too many differences to identify John as an Essene.
For one thing, John is a solitary figure. He just appears in the Gospel narratives. His only identifiable community is a group of disciples who apparently connected with him as he preached in the desert regions. As we will see this year in Cycle C, St. Luke records John’s preaching (Luke 3ff) as similar to the best of the classical Israelite prophets, particularly the more radical ones. He denounces the deterioration of Abraham’s tradition and warns of a coming catastrophe. John baptizes, but only once, unlike the Essene repeated washings; his baptism is a once-for-all event in preparation for an imminent, fiery future. None of the Gospels depict his preaching as a direct prediction of Jesus’ arrival, but John does anticipate one stronger than himself whose baptism will do in actuality what John’s does symbolically.
In fact, there is some uncertainty of how Jesus and John came together. It is very possible that Jesus himself—like several of his own future disciples—went out into the desert to hear John. Was Jesus himself baptized? Meier is of the opinion that he was, based on the “criterion of embarrassment,” i.e., that a Gospel writer would not invent an account in which Jesus would submit to a lesser figure. (See Matthew’s disclaimer, Matthew 3: 14-15) The evangelists depict the baptism of Jesus as an event of affirmation of the Father that Jesus is the Spirit-filled promised One. The Gospels, though, were written a half-century after the fact when the event could be interpreted in the light of the Resurrection and Pentecost. If indeed Jesus was baptized by John, and there is no historical reason to doubt the event itself, it may be that the simplest answer is the best one: Jesus was washed in the Jordan along with others for the same reason: he believed John’s preaching of an imminent judgment to come upon Israel. This reason is certainly compatible with Jesus’ own developed preaching later.
So, if Jesus acknowledged the “validity” of John’s baptism, he must have acknowledged the validity of John’s message as the Gospels have recorded it, meaning that we can get some insight into Jesus’ own vision at this time. John’s mission called for the acceptance of three points. (1) The end of Israel’s history as Israel had experienced it, was fast approaching. (2) Israel as a people had gone astray, and so all Israel was in danger of being consumed by the fire of God’s wrathful judgment, soon to come. (3) The only way to change to the status of the children of Israel who would be saved on the last day was to undergo a basic change, sealed by submission to a one-time immersion baptism. There is certainly nothing inconsistent here with Jesus’ later announcement of the Kingdom of God.
The question of whether Jesus was a disciple of John is complicated by the evidence that John had no independent order or worship core that we can identify. If Jesus was with John, it was as a fellow-traveler and probably as a companion in preaching John’s message. But there is no precise understanding of the time and the manor of the break, so to speak. The Gospel of John alone records that Peter, Andrew and John encountered Jesus in the Baptist’s ambit and decided to follow him in the sense of staying with him. We do not know, for example, if John the Baptist sent out clusters of missionary preachers making the call to baptism, but in John 3:22—after the famous “born again” discourse with Nicodemus--there is reference to Jesus and his followers in Judaea baptizing, though later in the text it is only the disciples baptizing.
We know that later in the Gospel narrative of Luke 7 there is some indication of strain between Jesus and John the Baptist. When John was rotting away in Herod’s prison, he sent two of his disciples to inquire of Jesus if he was indeed the one who is to come. Generally, we have tended to preach this text benignly, as an opportunity for Jesus to exalt himself. But John must have wondered how Jesus could overlook the debauchery of Herod; isn’t the role of a prophet to decry sin and pay the consequences? Jesus’ answer, if read in a particular way, is a response that his (Jesus’) mission is to announce that his Father’s kingdom is now at hand. In that same text, Jesus makes his famous accolade about the Baptist: “Of men born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist.”
On My Mind