Sunday, January 3, 2016: Feast of the Epiphany
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Matthew 2: 1-12
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.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
There is a businessman’s train that runs daily between Colon, Panama, at the northern entrance to the Canal, and the outskirts of Panama City, the southern end of the canal. Last year my cruise ship arranged for us to take the train along the entire length of the Canal for sightseeing purposes. I could not help but notice that we cruisers were the only ones on the train, so I asked the guide about that. The answer: our trip happened to fall on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which in Panama is a national/federal holiday. When I married my wife, who had spent a good portion of her adult life in Puerto Rico, she reminded me that in Hispanic culture the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, is a day of great cultural and religious significance. It is good to remember these things when we address the observance of Epiphany in the United States.
There is a rather wide divergence on the meaning and priority of the feasts of the Incarnation between eastern and western Christianity as well. There is a wealth of good information on the development of the Christmas feasts, and I find Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning in the Reform of the Liturgy (1981, 1990) a very useful source on this subject. It came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that in Eastern Christendom, for example, the January 6 observance of the Epiphany actually combined three distinct events: (1) the visit to the young Jesus by the Magi; (2) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and (3) the miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana. It is not surprising, then, that in much of the Christian world the Epiphany takes preference over the December 25 feast.
In the Roman Missal used in the United States, something of the Epiphany’s grandeur is lost by the fact that in most years the feast is not celebration in union with other Catholics and Christians around the world on January 6. In the post-Vatican II reform, conferences of bishops were given permission to transfer the feast to the first Sunday after the Octave of Christmas (i.e. to a date between January 2 and January 7. (There is a similar transfer of the Ascension, from its traditional Thursday setting to the following Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, in many but not all dioceses of the U.S.) The permission to transfer such important feasts may have liturgical roots in the principle of the sanctity of the Sunday observance, or it may be a concession that in the U.S., for example, people just “don’t do midweek solemnities.”
In America this weekend we will hear Matthew’s Gospel, a selection from his own Christmas narrative, which differs in considerable ways from Luke’s, who makes no mention of the wise men or Herod. To best understand Matthew’s unique inclusion, it is very helpful—necessary, in fact—to look at the first reading from Isaiah, using the USCCB link above. Isaiah 60 comes from the apocalyptic tradition of prophesy. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing Jewish messianic expectation in a monolithic fashion, that everyone over twelve centuries looked forward to a wondrous king, the true Son of David. (At Palm Sunday Mass, we hear the crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”)
However, Israel already had a long line of “sons of David,” a monarchical succession extending from Saul, David, and Solomon to the unfortunate soul who oversaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity around 590 BC. While many returning Jews maintained the hope of a new David to deliver them from a new series of conquerors, the Romans most of all, there grew a significant body of biblical literature that—with its apocalyptic/prophetic stance, began to conceive of the future in a new and glorious way—a victory of faith rather than the sword. The author of Isaiah 60—and many like him—came to understand that Israel’s destiny was not to conquer the planet as it had Canaan under a kingly/military savior. Rather, such prophets saw the role of Israel in the world as the religious center of the earth, the light of the nations, the “city on the hill” image that so captivated early settlers in North America centuries later.
Isaiah 60 describes the futuristic pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth. Clearly Matthew drew from this source in depicting a vignette in which wise men/magi/astrologers (the best and the most insightful of the pagan world) would come bearing a curious array of gifts symbolic of both majesty and suffering—a gesture of remarkable pagan insight when you think of it. Matthew observes that these pagans prostrated themselves and rendered homage to the person of Jesus. These wise men are the first of the pagans who would stream to Jesus and his subsequent community as the New Jerusalem, a procession that would last until the end of time.
If Luke’s Christmas narrative is an attempt to bring the Hebrew past into the experience of Jesus of Nazareth and his community of believers, Matthew’s Christmas narrative takes the early Judeo-Christian Church into the universal salvation of the future. Next year in Cycle A we will have the opportunity to pick up the Matthean theme of Jesus as the new Moses, establishing the Kingdom of God as the City on the Hill where the Sons of Abraham, by their faith and witness, would draw the truly wise from all times and all nations.
Sunday Gospel: Luke 2:41-52 USCCB site with all readings
Feast of the Holy Family
Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.
The Feast of the Holy Family suffers a bit in its placement between Christmas and Epiphany, which along with the Baptism of Jesus constitute the three major feasts of the Christmas Season. Before Vatican II and after Vatican II, preachers—perhaps worn down by the Christmas schedule—gave the same sermon every year on the Feast of the Holy Family: “your family should live like the Holy Family.” One of my earliest memories of my mother is coming home from church after such a sermon and getting her take on the message: “Easy for him to say. God and two saints!”
Sunday’s Gospel, from St. Luke’s Christmas narrative stream, is a hint that all is not well in Camelot, so to speak. I wrote a few days ago that both infancy narratives—Luke and Matthew—have been described as miniature passion accounts, hints of the sufferings of the Messiah and those around him that would begin long before Good Friday. In Matthew this is rather obvious, with Herod’s hunting of the child, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem.
Luke is subtler and psychological. If we look at his infancy narrative in its entirety, the joy is tempered by other emotions, many of them not pleasant. Right off the bat Zechariah is a conflicted man, struck dumb by Gabriel in an evident crisis of faith. Mary herself betrays an array of conflicting emotions and concerns when she hears Gabriel’s announcement. The very birth of Jesus occurs when an occupying army orders her husband to his town of origin for a tax accounting, in the less than glamorous setting of a barn, attended only by shepherds, isolated men who essentially killed wild animals for a living and carried a reputation as fierce as any hombre in the old American West.
In Sunday’s Gospel we get a look at Mary’s inner turmoil again. Jesus was presented in the temple twice. The first episode (which precedes this Gospel piece) describes how Mary and Joseph brought the infant for his dedication as a firstborn son. It is here that they encounter the holy man Simeon, who advises the couple that their new son will be a “sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34-35) and then to Mary, “you yourself will be pierced with a sword.” Joel Green’s commentary summarizes most reflection on this line, that Mary will be caught up in the vortex of Jesus’ final judgment and the establishment of the New Jerusalem.
Sunday’s Gospel is the next episode, occurring twelve years later. Green observes that Mary and Joseph are pious Jews—they make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover—implying that Jesus was, in his formative years, immersed in the traditional worship and faith of his contemporary Israel. If this narrative had followed its expected course, this little family of three would have consumed its Passover lamb, probably with relatives or hospitable residents—and returned home. The crux of the story, however, is that Jesus—who to this point has been quiet and passive in the entire Christmas narrative—finds a voice and a will. He has, in Luke’s earlier phrase (1:40), been growing in age, wisdom, and grace. On Sunday we get a look at his growth trajectory.
Green, in so many words, describes Jesus as taking the reins. Things no longer happen to him, he is not steered by conventional habits and religious practices, and he even redesigns the working framework of his family. The crux of the story is the reunion of the family, which is not exactly cozy. Mary articulates her concern and, importantly, that of his father (Joseph). Jesus’ reply (his first recorded words in Luke, in fact), is a contradiction of Mary, as he indicates that he is with his father, thank you very much, and there is surprise (rebuke?) from Jesus that his mother didn’t understand the arrangement. Luke reports that his parents did not grasp his answer.
There is a profound theology contained here: standard Jewish religious observance is no longer enough for the Kingdom of God that Jesus will bring. Even at twelve he is no longer content to observe Passover and return home to the parochial setting of the Nazareth synagogue. His inclination even now is to stay with his Father who art in Heaven, in the closest approximation, and devour his words as taught and interpreted by those who should know them best, the temple teachers. I am reminded of Psalm 19 which talks of God’s law and teaching as “sweeter than honey.”
While Luke does not imply that Jesus’ questions and answers were in some way miraculous, as is sometimes taught, his give and take in the temple was certainly elevated from what a twelve-year-old boy from the hinterlands would normally command from attendance at his synagogue school and his family hearth. There is a note of sadness in the text that even Mary does not comprehend her son, and as Green notes, Luke’s text has Jesus in the active voice choosing to rejoin his parents for the journey home and living obediently but freely in some kind of familiar harmony.
Luke, then, in this episode, has depicted the template of the man we will readily identify years later in the narrative. Jesus loved his faith and was obedient to its dictates, all the while preaching its reform and rejuvenation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, who loved the old while transforming it, was indeed a sign of contradiction, a hard man to understand. Mary’s timely inclusion in this Gospel is, more than anything else, a model of courageous religious faith at great cost. To use Luke’s words of Mary, we have much to ponder in our hearts.
December 13, 2015 Gospel Lk 3:10-18 USCCB site with all three readings
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
These two segments of St. Luke’s Gospel provide separate treasures of information about John the Baptist, messianic expectations, the apocalyptic tenor of the times, and even the early Christian Church in the sense that these texts were put to paper in a Christian milieu about a half century after the events described.
Our primary sources today are The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) and Joel Green (1997), whom I introduced in earlier entries. To make sense of the opening line of this Sunday’s Gospel, I have to point out a curious editorializing quirk in the Lectionary of the Mass. Last Sunday’s Gospel ends at Luke 3:6, the eschatological admonition to make straight the way of the one who is to come. For some reason the editors chose not to use verses 7-9, last week or this week:
3:7 So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 3:8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 3:9 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So when we resume Luke’s text this week, it is important to remember that it was these threatening words that clearly agitated the crowd to cry out in verse 10, “Whatever are we to do?” This was not a catechetical question as much as a survival plea. John’s answer is intriguing both for its content and its categorizing of listeners. He advises all in the crowd to share what they have with those who have less; in this he is no different from the classical Hebrew prophets such as Amos, and thus no different from that prophetic line’s condemnation of the temple and the priesthood, and the loss of brotherhood that traditionally would have cared for the poorest members of the nation of Israel. One point in the excised text is John’s insistence that membership in the bloodline of Abraham did not make a man ipso facto a participant in the glorious fulfillment of the future; notice there is no mention of the Mosaic Law; John’s call is more radical and universal.
As he continues his words, John addresses himself to two groups at the very margins of established Jewish community, tax collectors and soldiers. It is no accident that later in Luke’s Gospel Jesus will famously invite himself to dine with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and that Zacchaeus would immediately pledge half of his belongings to the poor, just as John has directed in the opening of Sunday’s Gospel. Tax collectors (or toll collectors) were Jews in Roman employ, not only despised as sympathizers of the occupying Romans but ritually unclean from handling gentile coinage. The JBC identifies the “soldiers” as Jews attached to King’s Herod’s charge, possibly “enforcers” for the tax collectors. John’s specific charges to the soldiers mirror the efforts of Emperor Augustus to reform the tax collection system, known in that day for its corruption and verified in secular sources beyond the revealed texts of Scripture.
John has made a point to address himself to a segment of Jewish society despaired of and despised by mainstream Jewish authorities and regular temple-worshippers. He is—knowingly or unknowingly—projecting the mission of Jesus that Luke will so generously portray, outreach and mercy to surprising populations. Again, the JBC observes that in the early Christian mission Jesus and his successors will be shunned by mainstream Judaism but embraced by the commoners, the sinners, the marginalized, and mirabile dictu, Gentiles. So we get from this text a taste of how the early Church would have looked in terms of who would have embraced it.
The second paragraph of the Sunday Gospel takes a different road, the wonderment among the peoples if John himself was the Christ; the term Christ comes from the word for oil, “the anointed one.” In this context the reference is to an anointed agent of Yahweh sent for the restoration of Israel and the triumph of God’s power and dominion. There was not uniformity among the Jews about exactly who it was that would appear in the future; Mark, as you might recall, referred to this figure as “the Son of Man,” and Jesus identified himself in this fashion at several points in the Gospels. Catholics need to understand the Jewish situation with better precision; we are used to thinking of “Christ” as the term for the second person of the Trinity, but this term “anointed one” has a long Jewish usage, and took many years to finalize--with considerable nuance at that.
John the Baptist states for the record that he is not the Christ. He explains that his baptism has been a cleansing act of commitment for this yet to appear figure of judgment who will cut through the harvest with a sharp blade and hurl the imperfect into the blazing fire. This new figure on the horizon will baptize with the Holy Spirit (termed “the Spirit of God” in the Hebrew books) and with fire, a blazing, purifying agent.
John’s own picture of the “one who is to come” is, to put it mildly, dramatic and awe-inspiring, a figure who would, to quote Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” settle all family business. Later in Luke’s Gospel there will come a time when the gentle kindness and joyful ministry of Jesus would vary considerably from John’s expectations, and these strains will be explored by Luke further down the road. I do find it interesting that the Holy Year, opened by Pope Francis today, will coincide with Cycle C and St. Luke’s Gospel, a portrayal of Jesus as the paradigm of loving acceptance and forgiveness.
SUNDAY GOSPEL: Luke 3: 1-6 USCCB text site for all three readings
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
There is so much to talk about today that I am going to farm out several topics for the wild card days coming up, including a discussion on the meaning of Advent (about which there is a good amount of catechetical and preaching confusion), and the process of selecting a worthy text when studying one of the books of the bible. Catholics and other Christian Churches which use our lectionary entered the C Cycle last Sunday, which focuses upon the majestic Gospel of St. Luke. I do need to lay a bit of groundwork here, though, before jumping right into next Sunday’s text from Luke 3.
A professional point of pride and competence—for catechists and all professionals, really—is providing access to your sources. I have to come clean here and admit that I have not read a full commentary on the Gospel of Luke, cover to cover, in decades. The commentaries I do own on this Gospel are dated; yes, even the best commentaries have a shelf life. So, in planning ahead for Cycle C I had to give some hard thought as to the best “steering current,” selecting a text that would expand my horizons along with yours as we progressed over the next 51 weeks. My selection was indeed out of my comfort zone, The Gospel of Luke by Joel B. Green (1997). Green is an eminent scholar of the Evangelical tradition as well as an ordained Methodist minister. My own interpretive outlook has been drawn from scholars of the 1960-1980 era; Green is of a newer generation that believes my generation interpreted things to death, and puts greater emphasis upon the internal narrative of a particular Gospel. I was trained to look at the Gospels comparatively; Green’s generation is more text oriented, which of course is to be expected of the Evangelical tradition.
The difficulty with studying Luke in the context of the liturgical cycle is that our first exposure to Luke in the Sunday readings is well into the middle of things; a good example of this is last Sunday’s text in which Luke describes the need for watchfulness for future events; Advent, at its heart, focuses upon the final coming of the Messiah, turning its attention to the birth of Jesus (his first coming) on December 17. It is unfortunate that the actual opening of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4, see the text here) will not appear in the Mass text until Ordinary Time in January, for Luke is the only evangelist who actually tells us what he sets out to do. Luke’s introduction has fascinated scholars of every generation. He candidly admits that he is not the first person to put pen to papyri on the events of the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth. He states that he has carefully reviewed what others have written and presumably said, and he makes no direct claim to having witnessed any of these events himself. So why did Luke undertake his own literary masterpiece if others (Mark?) have already reported?
There are two reasons put forward by Green (pp. 33-46). The first is Luke’s expectation that by dedicating his work to “most excellent Theophilus,” a man of some dignity and social standing, his writing would get a wider circulation than Luke, as a typical Roman artisan, might ordinarily expect. The other reason, the one that makes Luke’s work distinctive from the earlier accounts, is that Luke proposed to lay out for Theophilus the reports of Jesus in an “orderly account.” The source of this “order” will become evident as soon as Luke begins his narrative at 1:5 with the high priest Zachary encountering an angel in the temple: it is the preordained plan of God from all time. At the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel the risen Jesus will chide the two disciples bound for Emmaus for their failure to piece together the weave of God’s revelation in the Scriptures and its climax in Jesus’ death on the cross.
For those of you who followed St. Mark’s Gospel last year, Luke by comparison is rich, colorful, and heavily dependent upon Hebrew Scripture thinking and episodes. Scholars believe that Luke, Like Matthew and John, probably drew from Mark, but Luke exercises his literary imagination and includes entire episodes with no parallels in the other Gospels. Luke’s “Infancy Narrative” covers two entire chapters. His Gospel is filled with the parables we best know and love, and his details of physical life such as Jesus’ sweat before his arrest appearing as “drops of blood” led centuries of Christians to give Luke the title of “dear and glorious physician.”
For our purposes this weekend, Luke gives us more information about John the Baptist than any other Gospel, including texts of his sermons. In fact, the focus of the entire Gospel for this Sunday is John. We have a description of John receiving the Word of God, which empowered his proclamation. Obviously John here is not announcing the birth of Jesus, which would have occurred three decades earlier. His look to the future does not mention the return of Jesus or the Son of Man, but rather to a time when God himself would bring deliverance and forgiveness of sins. This is an apocalyptic text, with the Baptist quoting from Isaiah 40. This segment from Isaiah is part of a national hope of Israel that one day all the nations of the earth would stream to Jerusalem the holy city; the Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany provides this prophesy in greater length and detail.
The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is very complex. I will go into that as well in the days to come, but the best treatment of the two men is found in Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Volume II, Mentor, Message and Miracles, where an excellent 233-page analysis is provided.