Good News With the HardRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 2: 16-21
THE OCTAVE DAY OF CHRISTMAS:
SOLEMNITY OF THE VIRGIN MARY
USCCB links to all three readings
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the 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,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.
I am indebted today to both R.T. France (see home page) and the liturgist Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year in sorting out not only the richness of Sunday’s Gospel but also the rather complex history of the octave day (or eighth day) of Christmas. In my own lifetime, the liturgy of January 1 has been celebrated under three titles. Prior to the reforms of Vatican II, January 1 was celebrated as a holy day of obligation under the title of the Feast of the Circumcision, with the Gospel reading of Luke 2: 21, which happens to be the last sentence of our Gospel this weekend. (See above, second paragraph.)
The history of the New Year’s observance is far more ancient, predating the Christian era. We can thank Julius Caesar. In 46 B.C. Gaius Julius changed the date of the opening of the Roman civil year from March 1 to January 1. Pagans then began to celebrate the opening of the new year with festivals in honor of the god Janus (hence January). From all accounts these celebrations were marked by superstitions and “gross orgies” in Adam’s word—one wonders if other lesser days were marked by “routine” orgies in Rome. By St. Augustine’s day, c. 400 A.D., Christians were celebrating a New Year liturgy titled ad prohibendum ab idolis and I won’t insult your intelligence with a translation. Augustine’s quote is intriguing: “Let them rush to the theater: you should rush to church. Let them get drunk; you should fast.” (Adam, p.139) For the next several centuries the early days of January were penitential in the Latin Roman West.
That said, there developed a variety of feasts throughout the Christian world celebrated on the octave day of the Lord’s birth. Rome itself adopted the Eastern Church’s practice of observing the Anniversary of the Mother of God. But as early as the sixth century Spain and Gaul (modern France) began the year with a feast marking the Lord’s Circumcision. By the early Renaissance the Spanish/Gallic feast was adopted in Rome and became the feast that we old timers recall, along with all the embarrassing catechetical questions that accompanied it.
The 1969 calendar restored the January 1 observance to “The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God,” and the missal incorporated the text from Luke 2 as posted above. In his commentary on the Gospel, R.T. France (see home page) places emphasis upon the reactions to the newborn son of the Holy Spirit. In the text at hand there are two distinct reactions: the shepherds’ joy at what they had seen with their own eyes and heard from the angels a few lines earlier; and Mary’s enigmatic reflections in her own heart upon the profound implications of what has happened.
France observes an ongoing contrast in Luke’s infancy narrative between the high and the mighty, on one hand, and the poor and the outcast on the other. Earlier, when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, she prayed in thanksgiving to her God who “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) The powerful Roman leaders cited that sacred night in Luke (2:1-2) are impervious to the events at Bethlehem because, simply put, God did not bother to tell them. Instead, his angels (“messengers”) tell the great tidings to shepherds. France describes shepherds as poor day laborers who tend the flocks of other wealthier neighbors by night as second jobs to supplement their meager existence. The text immediately preceding Sunday’s reading quotes the angels’ message that peace will come “upon those he favors,” clearly a reference to this cash-strapped substratum of a powerful empire.
In several ways, the documents of Vatican II speak of Mary as the first Christian or the paradigm of the Christian believer. This is important to bear in mind as we consider just what Mary might be pondering in her heart, as well as what we ought to be pondering ourselves. For one thing, the multiple messages of angels in Luke’s infancy narrative leave no doubt that the child born in Bethlehem would turn the world upside down, and while there would be a glorious ending to the story, the process would be painful and costly. Later in Luke’s narrative Mary is told that her son would be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that “her own heart would be pieced with a sword of sorrow.”
Many Scripture scholars view the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew as miniature lives of the adult Christ, including reference to his Passion. The feast of Mary this weekend is certainly a tribute to her unique faith and role in the mystery of the Incarnation. But equally true, her feast is an identity statement of the Church and each of its members. The Evangelist John, whose feast happens to fall today, does not have an infancy narrative as such. But John does describe the later suffering of Mary—her sword of sorrow--when, standing at the foot of the cross, she is splashed with the water and the blood that spilled from her dead son’s corpse as he hung upon the cross. Indeed, she and we have much to ponder as we behold the Babe of Bethlehem.
NEXT WEEKEND’S GOSPELS:
THE SOLEMNITY OF CHRISTMAS
MASSES BEFORE MIDNIGHT: USCCB link here
MIDNIGHT MASS: link here
DAWN MASS: link here
MASS DURING THE DAY: link here
Before you fly into a panic of confusion about all the directives regarding which Gospel is assigned to your Christmas Mass, whatever time that may be, there are two things to bear in mind. First, the issue of retaining the Roman Missal’s sequence of four different Gospels over the 12-hour period of the Christmas feast remains a debate among liturgical theologians, among others. I have a link here to a fine 2013 journal piece by Thomas O’Loughlin on the nature of the problem, “Which Gospel on Christmas Day?” for those so inclined and who have finished their Christmas shopping.
The second thing to consider is that in deference to the expectations of most of the faithful, and certainly the children, every pastor I have ever known—including this one--has used the Midnight Mass formula for all the Christmas Masses regardless of the hour. This Mass formula includes the powerful narrative of the birth of Jesus in the stable of Bethlehem. My guess is that you would expect to hear this Gospel, too, at any Christmas Mass you attend. But if you attend the 4 PM Vigil on Saturday night this weekend—now becoming the most popular time for Catholics to attend Mass for Christmas in the United States—your missalette has a different Christmas Mass with a different Gospel, notably the first chapter of Matthew including the 42 “begats.” If you trudged in to noon Mass on Christmas Day, your missalette will draw from the first chapter of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Gospel continues with a magnificent hymn on the mystery of the Incarnation, but with no references to specifics of the Christmas event.
St. Mark has the weekend off, so to speak, as events of Jesus’ birth are not essential to the theological heart of his Gospel. In Mark’s text, Jesus appears on page one as an adult with John the Baptist, and Mark is not part of the liturgical discussion.
The reasons we have four different Christmas Masses are complex, but to cut to the chase, there are in the Gospels three distinct theological presentations presented by Matthew, Luke, and John respectively, of the birth of Jesus. Since we are in the A Cycle (St. Matthew) and his infancy text will include the reading of the Feast of the Epiphany on January 8, let’s look at Matthew’s understanding of Christmas. We enjoy a head start, because ironically the Gospel of Christmas Eve is identical to the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Matthew’s Year A, having been read last weekend.
The overarching theme of Matthew’s Gospel is the fulfillment of Israel’s longing for a Savior and the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom in his enduring Church. For centuries, the Gospel of Matthew was known as the “Gospel of the Church.” One of Matthew’s primary concerns, then, is to demonstrate how the New Testament completes the Old Testament. More specifically, Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, coming forth with the final revelation of God’s Law for all time and eternity. The parallel of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments from the heights of Sinai and Jesus delivering the Eight Beatitudes from the mount is no accident; it is a sign of Matthew’s inspired genius.
To accomplish the Spirit’s task, though, Matthew must establish that Jesus is indeed the long awaited one, a true son of Israel, the future light to all the nations as predicted by Isaiah, and of course, worthy of comparison to Moses. All of this he sets out to do in the two “Infancy” chapters at the beginning of his Gospel. Chapter One (the Christmas Vigil reading at Mass) begins with the “begats” which establishes the blood line between Jesus and the father of Israel, Abraham. Of course, the unique divine conception of Jesus in this bloodline demands explanation, and thus Matthew composes vv. 18-25 to explain the intervention of the Spirit and Joseph’s understanding of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Matthew gives us no extra detail of the birth except that it occurred, not even where it took place, because such data was not necessary for Matthew’s bigger purposes.
Having established that Jesus is true son of God and son of Abraham, Matthew proceeds to Chapter 2, which begins with the appearance of the star and the wise men in the east. Matthew is setting up the fulfillment of Isaiah 60: 1-6, the first reading of the Feast of the Epiphany, where
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Here is the marriage of Israel with the Gentiles, Jesus the object of worship of the whole world. The wisdom of the Law of Moses meeting the Wise Men of the Gentile world, united in the full wisdom revealed in the preaching of Jesus and ultimately his kingdom on earth.
Complicating the scenario with the wise men is King Herod, and his machinations with “spying” on the future king through the Magi. Herod’s paranoia leads him to a local massacre to kill his “contender,” Jesus. Historically speaking, there is no known record of such a massacre to corroborate Matthew even among historian who hated the king, so we are driven to probe elsewhere to discover Matthew’s intentions here. The better theological explanation is that Matthew is recasting Herod as the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses I, whom many scholars identify as the pharaoh who ordered the massacre of all Hebrew males during Moses’ infancy because Hebrew fertility was proving much greater than Egyptian. Thus, the story line is set for two dramatic rescues in Egypt—Moses, pulled from the Nile by the daughter of the pharaoh, no less; and Jesus, whose “flight into Egypt” to save his life from Herod has been immortalized in the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, not to mention Matthew’s own dramatic account which inspired it.
Thus, Matthew’s Christmas narratives serve an indispensable role in his presentation of the identity and meaning of the Savior Jesus. The Church has done its best, in its liturgical plan, to bring this doctrinal overview before the faithful in the Christmas Cycle of Masses. Human nature being what it is, we tend to gravitate toward St. Luke’s account of the Nativity; there is no disputing that Luke is the better narrator and story teller. When we come around to next Christmas, I will walk through Luke’s theological overview of his Infancy narrative.
I would like to make one final point about the two Christmas narratives in the Gospels. There is a brief but excellent treatment of the Gospel Infancy narratives, An Adult Christ at Christmas, by Father Raymond Brown, a scholar who has had profound impact on my own biblical studies throughout my lifetime. (You can browse the text on-line.) Father Brown treats of these Christmas narratives in a much more comprehensive fashion that incorporates the texts into the full Gospel narratives. I checked this morning, and the book remains a popular seller and can be delivered by Prime before Christmas. It fits in a stocking, too.
Have fun with your missalettes this weekend.
How The Birth of Christ Came AboutRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 1:18-24
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
While it may appear at first reading that Matthew [or more accurately, the editors of the Sunday Lectionary] have jumped the gun a bit by the inclusion of a “Christmas Story” in the liturgy before Christmas Eve, in fact Chapter 1 is less about what happened at the first Christmas and more about the true nature of the one born in Bethlehem. We have not had an opportunity to talk here on the blog about Matthew’s actual intentions in writing his entire Gospel, which is critical to understanding the first two chapters popularly referred to as infancy or childhood narratives.
There was a longstanding belief in the Church that Matthew wrote his Gospel from a direct inspiration and narration of an angel, and for this reason the Matthean Gospel was often referred to as the Gospel of the Church. The latter texts in this Gospel referring to the leadership of Peter and the establishment of an ecclesia or church may have something to do with the later Church’s affection for Matthew and the placement of his Gospel at the beginning of the New Testament. However, scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came to understand that all four evangelists had unique emphases or “Christologies,” and so attention turned to the theological intentions of Mark, Luke, and John, as well as Matthew.
There is now a measure of agreement that Matthew intended his Gospel for Greek-speaking Jews living after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jews and Christians had not yet made a formal break, and many Jews were in fact baptized into the community of Jesus’ believers. We cannot fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Roman destruction upon Jews of the time, and the scattering or diaspora of the Jews about the Mediterranean was now in full process. Matthew, whose actual identity is unknown, attempted to rally despondent Jews by laying out the case that the Hebrew Scriptures had come to fulfillment in Jesus, and that Jesus was in fact the New Moses.
The “infancy narratives” in Matthew are thus a theological justification for these claims. They are “theology by metaphor,” so to speak. R.T. France divides Matthew’s infancy narratives into two parts (Matthew 1: 1-17, the “Book of Origin” of the Messiah: and Matthew 1:18-2:23, “A Demonstration That Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah: Five Scriptural Proofs.” An easy access to both chapters can be found here at the USCCB website for a quick perusal. By this reckoning our Sunday reading is the first of the five demonstrations. Prior to Matthew 1:18ff is the lengthy genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew traces back to Abraham, establishing that Jesus is a true son of Israel. (By contrast, Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam.)
France writes that the genealogy has one problem, in Matthew 1:16. The line of descendants is always through the male, but at this point Joseph is described as the husband of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah. There is no statement that Joseph is the father of Jesus. This omission, and the interjection of Mary, would call for some explanation to Jews who understood the importance of bloodline in the identity of their faith.
Our Sunday text is the answer to the dilemma. As Matthew begins, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” These six lines address the peculiarity of Jesus’ origin, maintaining his place as the focus of Abraham’s bloodline, but they also demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah (per France) and the New Moses. The evangelist describes the relationship of Mary and Joseph as one of “betrothal.” This is a stronger term than our “engagement,” for in Jewish Law betrothal was a binding commitment, though a betrothed couple was not yet carnally involved till the marriage rite. This is not to say that all couples entered their marriages pure as lilies, but in our text Joseph is described as a righteous man who had not yet taken Mary into his home. France emphasizes how carefully Matthew avoids any suggestion that Jesus might be Joseph’s son.
Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit (i.e., a divine conception). Interestingly, Matthew gives no indication that Mary herself appreciates the cause of her pregnancy. At this juncture, the reader knows more than the players. Matthew has already described Joseph as righteous, but the term implies compliance with the Law. France notes that prior to the Roman occupation a betrothed woman was considered an adulteress and condemned to stoning; Roman governors halted this practice, and a righteous man in Joseph’s day would take his unfaithful betrothed or wife to the priests and publicly receive a writ of divorce.
Joseph was not only righteous, he was conflicted. His only option was a private divorce before two witnesses, permissible by the Law but not exactly an optimum outcome for a woman in a small town that knew of the engagement. It was the best that a virtuous Jewish man could do for a woman he loved—the minimum penalty available—and the Greek tenses indicate that this decision was his and his alone, prior to any divine intervention.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Sunday’s text is that the revelation of the angel comes to Joseph in his sleep, and not to Mary. The heart of the message is nearly verbatim to Gabriel’s appearance to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but in Matthew’s strongly Jewish text even this sacred revelation comes to the patriarch of the household. Joseph is to name the child Jesus, who will one day forgive sins, a divine function. France devotes considerable attention to the prophesy uttered by the angel about a young woman conceiving and bearing a son, specifically Isaiah 7:14ff. The literary and historical circumstances of this prophesy are intensely complicated; suffice to say in late Judaism the Septuagint bible translated “young woman” as “virgin,” and Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah’s prophesy has served as an important feature of Catholic worship and Marian piety for nearly all of its history.
It is interesting that the Catholic Mass Lectionary does not include the entire paragraph, leaving off the phrase “…he accepted his wife, and he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus.” Again, one of Matthew’s theological concerns is the divine paternity of Christ, and he again goes to great pains to assure the reader that Jesus can only be God’s son. To read into the text the possibility of Jesus having brothers and sisters is to stretch the text like taffy into considerations unconnected to the theology and purposes of the evangelist Matthew.
THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 11: 2-11
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This Sunday’s reading is set midway through Jesus’ public ministry—at roughly the halfway point in Matthew’s Gospel—and fittingly marks off the “end of the old” and the “beginning of the new” covenant with God. The last text of the Sunday reading could not make it clear; Jesus describes John the Baptist as the greatest man born of woman, yet “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
One of the most intriguing episodes of my own seminary studies was attempting to penetrate the mysteries of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. My own childhood catechetics—or perhaps more fairly, the folks who taught my catechism—described John’s exclusive mission as setting the stage for Jesus. John’s own circumstances, his identity, and the number of his followers were never much discussed, perhaps because of the instinctive need to say or do nothing that might minimize the exclusiveness of Jesus. The new Biblical scholarship had not yet percolated into Buffalo Catholic school classrooms in the 1950’s, nor into the rectory, I might add.
The only source descriptive of John’s childhood and blood relationship with Jesus is Luke’s infancy narrative, where his positioning is more theological than historical. Matthew’s first introduction of John is last week’s chapter three, where the Baptist appears as an adult. And whether Luke’s sole account of baby John is historical or not, his role is one of contrast: John might become a great prophet, but his conception is natural except for the age of his parents. Jesus, by contrast, is fathered miraculously by the Holy Spirit.
It was not until the post-World War II discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that scholars came to a better understanding of John’s own ministry. The Scrolls are a virtual library of a variety of Hebrew biblical and contemporary texts from the era of Jesus. They do not mention John by name, but they reveal the existence of an apocalyptic community of ascetics living outside of Jerusalem. This community, known as the Essenes, had cut itself off from the Jerusalem Temple for a multitude of reasons. The Essenes lived as highly ascetical communal life with rituals of bathing and purification for the coming of a coming judgment ushered in by the Teacher of Light. They were celibate for the most part and eschewed material riches.
The Dead Sea Scrolls led to a spate of speculation as to whether John the Baptist was himself an Essene. There was a good deal of overlap; John offered a bath of purification (baptism); he was alienated from the Temple; and he too looked forward to a great one to come. The differences included John’s public ministry in the wilderness; the Essenes were separatists by nature. What can safely be established is a similarity in world view between John and the Essenes. That said, recent scholars are returning to John’s affinity with the classical prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and this turn is certainly reinforced by Sunday’s Gospel.
Father John Meier, in his masterpiece five-volume study of Jesus, A Marginal Jew II (1994), devotes nearly 250 pages to the John-Jesus question. Meier concludes three points: (1) Jesus and John spent time together early in Jesus’ public life; Meier refers to John in his own work as a mentor of Jesus. (2) Jesus and John both understood and appreciated a water event that would forgive sins or purify. (3) Both John and Jesus were apocalyptic, though as Sunday’s text reveals, they did not view the future in precisely the same ways. Matthew and Luke agree that John’s preaching drew very large crowds out to the desert for his teaching and baptismal washing.
John, then, was much more than a passing shower on the Israelite landscape. His life and fate drew attention from several non-Christian contemporary sources. The process by which some or many of John’s followers—including the first Apostles! -- moved their religious affections to Jesus is not spelled in any Gospel. But it is fair to say that John and Jesus were moving in different directions and that some sort of gulf was dividing them. This is the setting of Sunday’s first line. John sends two of his disciples from prison to present a rather pointed question about Jesus’ identity and style. This was not idle curiosity. John’s imprisonment was the result of his preaching against King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. It was a typical Old Testament response to royal evils that John had inherited from the Classical Prophets. To use American jargon, he preached fire and brimstone to the King, and thus was arrested and put to death.
Sunday’s Gospel states that John had heard of the works of the Christ, and he probably accepted prophetic identity for Jesus. His puzzlement may have been why the prophet Jesus was not chained in a cell next to his. Why wasn’t Jesus confronting Herod’s sin? Another puzzlement might have been Jesus’ own conduct, eating and drinking with sinners, and the company he kept. John may have envisioned a more politically oriented “anointed one,” a sharp contrast to the mission of mercy and forgiveness by which Jesus had come to be identified.
Jesus summarizes his answer to John’s disciples in the language of Isaiah 35 and 61 (blind…lame…lepers etc.) There is a corrective here; by citing one of Israel’s best known prophets in describing his own ministry, Jesus is suggesting that even a man with John’s passion can sometimes misconnect the dots. Jesus’ quote that “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” was a reference to John, but beyond him, to the broader community of Jews with slewed messianic expectations.
The second paragraph contains Jesus’ assessment of John (presumably after John’s disciples have left) and Jesus’ words are most laudatory. John’s followers were (and probably still were even with John in prison) both enthusiastic and numerous. Jesus makes the point that these folks did not go into the desert to see reeds and flowers (of which there were none in the desert) nor the fashionably dressed leaders in Jerusalem. He confirms that they had been right in seeking to encounter a prophet, and he goes on to acclaim John’s importance by citing the Prophet Malachi’s third chapter prediction of one who is even “greater than a prophet,” namely John.
Our house commentator R.T. France describes John as a hinge between the old and the new, for as great as John is by the standards of Jewish history, the least in the new kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Sunday’s reading is not a diminishment of John but a lesson of the glory of the new kingdom that Jesus has come to effect.
This Sunday of Advent is the last which focuses upon the adult Christ and his second coming. The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s Gospel is Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth.