NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 10: 34a, 37-43
EASTER SUNDAY [B]
USCCB link to all Easter morning readings here.
Peter proceeded to speak and said:
"You know what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.
We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name."
The assignment of readings for the Easter Vigil and particularly Easter Sunday morning is quite diverse, like Christmas in that respect. Given that fact, if you are attending the Easter Vigil late Saturday—a rite with nine Scripture proclamations, you are probably best off to read or at least survey the texts by reviewing the Easter Vigil USCCB site linked here. Parishes usually take the option of reducing the full slate of vigil readings to about five or six.
Easter Sunday morning also offers choices for the proclamations, except in the case of our first reading above, which is used every Easter Sunday in all three cycles. The Easter Season is unique in that the first readings every Sunday are drawn from the New Testament, specifically the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the development of the Christian faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Acts was written as the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, which places its composition in the decade of the 80’s A.D. However, there is strong opinion that the sermons of Peter, such as the one here, is a good historical remembrance of the actual earliest apostolic preaching.
Sunday’s text from Acts 10 is Peter’s sermon addressed to Gentiles, as the Jews are spoken of in the third person. This is a softer text than Peter’s address in Acts 2, which comes immediately after the Lukan Pentecost event, and which is directed to the Jewish throngs who had called for Jesus’ crucifixion. In that sermon, the Jews respond with fear and demand the saving waters of baptism, in numbers approaching 3000 according to Luke. The one question we might ask here is why the imposition of a post-Pentecostal recollection on the Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection.
One explanation is the intimate connection of the Holy Spirit with the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday itself, particularly in the Gospel of John. In John’s crucifixion narrative, Jesus gathers his new kingdom at the foot of the cross—notably his mother and the “disciple whom he loved”—and in John’s description of the moment of his death, Jesus “handed over the spirit.” The evangelist John portrays the first Pentecostal event (there will be others) at the moment of Jesus’ death. This explains an unusual act by a Roman soldier who, seeing that Jesus was already dead, lanced his side. What came forth was a cascade of blood and water, which splashed upon his new kingdom, those standing below. Later Christians would have recognized blood and water as symbols of the two earliest sacraments, baptism and eucharist. [Listen to the Good Friday Passion closely later this week.]
John’s Gospel narrative continues into Easter Sunday, when Jesus appears that evening of the first day of the week to the apostles in the locked room. We can assume that the Ascension or ultimate Glorification of Jesus took place on Easter a little earlier. When Mary Magdalene tried to embrace Jesus near the tomb that morning, Jesus says “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” But in the evening Jesus shows the apostles his wounds and does not prohibit them from approaching him. Within a week, he will invite doubting Thomas to put his fingers in his nail holes. Having approached the apostles on Easter Sunday night in his eternal glory, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” This marks the second “Pentecostal event” in John’s triduum of days.
In the reform of the Sacred Liturgy of the Easter Season, beginning with Pius XII in 1955, the fathers of the Church wished to reestablish the full unity of Christ’s redemptive work: to leave a memorial meal where he would be present, to offer himself as the once for all redemptive sacrificial lamb [the timing of the soldier’s lance coincides with the butchering of Passover lambs in the Temple], to rise from the dead and enjoy the glorious eternal blessedness of his Father, to pour out the Holy Spirit upon his new kingdom, and to make possible the forgiveness of sins until his coming in glory. Easter cannot be celebrated as an empty tomb, but as the pivotal event for which Christ has come into the world and makes possible unity of glorious life beyond the grace. Thus, the Easter liturgy attempts to embody every aspect of Jesus’ redemption.
[If you attend the three nights of the Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil, you will notice that the Holy Thursday and Good Friday rites do not end with a formal dismissal, because the next day picks up where the previous rite leaves off, a rubric sign of continuity of the mysteries being reenacted.]
This is the reason the Church draws from St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles for its first reading every year on Easter Sunday morning. Peter has checked nearly all the boxes about Jesus, citing his baptism and anointing by the Spirit, his good works, his crucifixion at the hands of those who rejected him, his resurrection on the third day, the eating and drinking of a memorial banquet, his glorious judgeship [Ascension], his call to a mission to the world, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. In this concise sermon, Peter has collected all the mysteries of Jesus into one address. Easter is a day to celebrate Christ in his fullness. At the Sunday Masses the congregation is invited to renewal of baptismal promises in a formula very much like Peter’s—a catalogue of every reason to rejoice on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 50: 4-7
PASSION [PALM] SUNDAY [B]
USCCB Link to all scriptural readings assigned to blessing and Mass
The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is three separate collections by three different authors. The text is divided into a pre-Exile section [Chapters 1-39], a Babylonian Captivity segment [40-55], and a post-Exile segment after the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after 539 B.C. In terms of style and content scholars are comfortable with the tripartite division of the volume named Isaiah.
For those of you who participate in the Holy Week liturgies, the second Isaiah (referred to in commentaries as “Deutero-Isaiah,” i.e., “Second Isaiah”) is quite familiar for its majestic poetry regarding the “Suffering Servant.” Deutero-Isaiah introduces the idea that one suffering soul has taken upon himself the sins of all in a universal act of redemptive suffering. Sunday’s reading introduces the theme, but its fullest and most dramatic proclamation will come during the Good Friday Liturgy [Isaiah 52:13—53:12.] Our commentator Father Boadt [see home page], speaking of chapters 52 and 53, comments that “It is a remarkable passage because it suggests more clearly than anywhere else in the Old Testament that God accepts one individual’s suffering to atone for the sins of others.” (p. 377) Israel was familiar with rituals of atonement involving the suffering and death of a goat, the “scape goat” ritual of Leviticus 16, but the concept of a human being atoning for general sin through an individual death was another thing entirely.
Did Isaiah understand his prophesy as directed to Jesus of Nazareth specifically? I have never come across a commentator who answered this question affirmatively in the literal sense. Isaiah’s breakthrough is more along the lines of the concept of redemptive suffering. Again, Father Boadt reminds us that Isaiah’s prophesy here is unique to the Hebrew Scripture and is not a major feature of later Old Testament books which extend as late as perhaps 150 B.C. If Isaiah’s prophesy was targeted and specific, as we sometimes make it out to be, it would have altered Messianic expectations. The Gospels are clear that this was not the case. The idea of a dying, executed savior was not understood by the Jews of Jesus’ time, and not even by the first Christians in the post-Easter era.
It is worth noting that Luke 24’s description of the meeting of Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus involves two men who had not made any connection between Isaiah and Jesus. Luke reports Jesus to have spent the entire afternoon explaining every instance in the Scripture [the Old Testament] where the necessity of the suffering and death of the Messiah is depicted as part of God’s plan. Whatever Isaiah originally intended, the Christian Church eventually made the connection between Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and the redemptive death of Christ.
The text from Sunday’s first reading combines the personality of a Spirit-filled prophet with a courageous stance of a man who knows that his message will draw persecution and eventually abandonment. “The Lord is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced.” It is interesting that next Sunday’s Passion account from St. Mark includes a description of Jesus’ final moments on the cross in which he cries “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” This prayer resonates with the circumstances of Isaiah’s prophesy, when the exiles had been denied homecoming for several decades and perhaps had given up hope that they would ever see the holy city Jerusalem again. Mark, like Luke, writes to connect the vision of Isaiah with the intent of Christ, whose own preaching speaks repeatedly of a glorious and lasting homecoming in the Kingdom of God.
I am in the middle of several personal projects this week, including presenting a parish staff retreat on Thursday. The usual Tuesday post will be up Friday, devoted to next Sunday’s first reading (Palm Sunday).
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JEREMIAH 31: 31-34
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
how to know the LORD.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
Father Lawrence Boadt’s Old Testament commentary (see home page) devotes Chapter 18 to the Prophet Jeremiah exclusively, and why not? Jeremiah’s ministry begins in 627 B.C. and extends to 582 B.C. Boadt comments that Jeremiah holds the record for length of prophetic activity at 45 years. His tenure begins with the reforms of the Israelite king Josiah and continues through the failures of their successors, the final collapse of the kingdom, and the Babylonian Exile. Boadt comments that “this work reveals more of the individual than any other Old Testament book…a person in ancient dress with whom modern readers can readily identify.” (p. 315)
For much of his life Jeremiah focused upon two themes: the evil of idolatry and injustice. He was relentless in his call for reform, which brought him suffering and persecution throughout his ministry. At the same time, he was a man of deep compassion who loved his people and worked tirelessly to save them from the judgment their infidelity would provoke from God. Boadt quotes the twentieth century Jewish Scripture scholar Abraham Heschel, as describing Jeremiah as “the prophet of God’s pathos—the divine sympathy.” (Boadt, 321) As Israel’s moral ethos deteriorated, Jeremiah despaired that anything he could say would avert the inevitable destruction that was now a virtual certainty. In a few instances he states that God has ordered him not to intercede on behalf of the people any longer, as in Jeremiah 7:16.
Those of us catechized in Western Christian civilization are used to hearing our doctrines and directives in propositional and left-brained style; no one has ever confused the Catholic Catechism with Maya Angelu for the Nobel Prize in Literature. [Note the prominence of “talking head” liturgies in the U.S.] Prophetic literature is a product of the Middle East, where song, poetry, parable, sermon, and metaphor convey religious truth. Jeremiah spoke in parable and visionary tones, and while his message remains consistent, the artistry of his figures of speech and the music of his verse moved his hearers and disciples. It is sad to say that in reading Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the other classical prophets, we do not have access to the sensory experiences that prophetic preaching entailed.
Nor is it easy for us to enter the context of the preaching event, and Jeremiah’s preaching was no exception. When the Babylonian Captivity took full force, Jeremiah urged his brethren to accept their lot with resignation, as the just punishment for their sins. He also counseled against listening to false prophets who foretold a brief sojourn in Babylon. This probably cost him many followers and friendships. The Book of Lamentations, once believed to be authored by Jeremiah, certainly captures the grief of the prolonged captivity in a foreign land and the barrenness of a stripped Jerusalem.
It is likely that Sunday’s reading, the oracle of a new covenant, was addressed to the captives at some point late in Jeremiah’s life. The literary style is apocalyptic—forward looking and full of promise. At first glance the text does not differ greatly from other renewals of God’s covenant, but again the context is the missing yeast. The listener would have to concede that the recent memory of Israel’s history—from King Josiah’s reform to its inexorable deterioration of faith—was indeed a breaking of the covenant. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant with both the houses of Israel and Judah, signifying that the current split of the promised land into a northern and a southern kingdom would be healed.
Jeremiah, assuming the voice of God, explains the need for punishment; “I had to show myself their master…” But with hearts purified by trial, the new promise will be “written in their hearts.” Curiously, the prophesy goes on to says that “no longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives” of the covenant, suggesting a very personal degree of communication with God. It is a different emphasis from addresses to “my people” and may suggest the first strong indication of the importance of personal fidelity. It reflects prophetic identity, in which one man with a conscience steps forward to say and do what is right by the Law.
Sunday’s reading is paired with St. John 12, and one can read in Jesus’ description of himself his sense of prophetic identity. Chapter 12 describes a voice from heaven, similar in effect to the baptismal scenes of Jesus in the other Gospels where the Spirit of God is poured forth upon him. This is the same idiom used to describe Old Testament prophets, as receiving the Spirit of God. Jesus knew the histories of Isaiah and Jeremiah quite well, and the Gospel concludes with Jesus’ full embrace of the prophetic destiny: “‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’
He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”
For those wondering if there are available commentaries on Jeremiah, the answer is, uh, yes.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: 2 CHRONICLES 36:14-16, 19-23
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB Link to all three readings
In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.
Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”
The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are a retelling of the history of the Israel in the era of the kings, using material from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. 2 Chronicles begins with Solomon’s reign and continues through the Babylonian Exile (c. 597-539 B.C.), after which the kingship ceased to exist. Sunday’s reading marks the conclusion of the Chronicle narrative, the destruction of the Temple and the sorrowful forced dislocation of most of the residents of Jerusalem and its environs to a seven-decade captivity in Babylon. The history of post-exile Israel is picked up in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the same time that this text was composed.
The Chronicle is a retelling, so the obvious question is why the original Biblical narrative needed a reworking. Father Lawrence Boadt explains the forces at work in his 2012 commentary (which I strongly recommend for your home working library.) In the first instance, the sheer length of the exile strongly suggests that those who returned to Jerusalem in 539 B.C. were literally new to the place and probably under-informed of the staples of Israel’s life, such as kingship, temple, priesthood, and law. The vacuum created by the absence of a king was filled by the priests who desired to fill the gaps of Israel’s self-understanding.
Given the upheaval created by the exile, detailed in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah that follow, religious leaders sought to remind their returning brethren that Israel had once been well served by its own kings, notably David and Solomon. Thus, Chronicles provides another source for the history of the monarchy, a version which Boadt observes has removed the warts of the kings recounted in Samuel and Kings. For example, David’s adultery with Bathsheba is edited out of Chronicles, and his role in the construction of the Temple is exaggerated. This second history is colored with emphases on the needs of post-exilic times: rebuilding the Temple, renewing the observance of the Law, restoring the power and functions of the priesthood. [Whether the popularity of King Cyrus of Persia among the returning Israelites played a role in Chronicles, one way or the other, is hard to say.]
Sunday’s text is the conclusion of the revised story of Israel’s kings. It is interesting that the moral collapse of Israel is described quite democratically—everyone is to blame; the kings are not singled out. The fall is depicted as the desecration of the holy place and the influx of pagan religious rites. The text describes the appearances of the pre-exile prophets, and their rejection is described as widespread among all the classes. God’s wrath is finally provoked, and the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, began a protracted campaign against Israel around 600 B.C. that concluded with destruction of the Temple and mass relocation. Jeremiah’s prophesy of a seventy-year desolation is remarkably accurate. Israel’s springtime would be the conquest of Babylon by Persia, and its remarkable King Cyrus.
The final paragraph of Sunday’s reading is, interestingly, repeated in the opening of the Book of Ezra which follows. It is a remarkable thing that the Lord directly inspired a gentile king, and even more remarkable is its content. Cyrus, in 539 B.C., states that all the kingdoms of the earth have been given to him and he has been charged by God to build him a house in Jerusalem. Cyrus allows any one of this God’s people who wish to undertake the rebuilding process to go, and he includes the blessing “May his God be with him!” Cyrus, not surprisingly, enjoyed considerable love and gratitude among the people of Israel, who loyally record his generosity for posterity by recounting what on its face is quite embarrassing—that a pagan king proves to be a God-chosen redeemer where their own kingly line has failed.
Cyrus and his successors took this divine commission seriously. In 440 B.C., a century later, the Persian king Artaxerxes dispatched a royal official of his court to assist Jerusalem in shoring up its defenses and restoring observance to Jewish Law. The courtier-now-governor was named Nehemiah, the author of the Biblical work under his name.
Sunday’s text is not simply a statement of sin and redemption, but also of the surprising fashion in which God works. We worship a God “without walls,” so to speak, and we would do well not to ‘domesticate” or “appropriate” the all-powerful. The Sunday Gospel text from St. John concludes: “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Goodness and light appear in unexpected places, too, even in Persian palaces.