NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: SIRACH 3:2-6, 12-14
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
USCCB link to all three readings
God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother's authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.
My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.
The Jewish Book of Sirach is one of the last of the Old Testament works, written around 175 B.C. Sirach is classified as a “Wisdom” text, and as the name suggests, its focus is wise moral living, a marriage of philosophy and law. Other Wisdom texts include Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Wisdom. Given the influx of Greek philosophy at this late date of composition, there are signs of Socratic questioning in many of the Wisdom books, and our text here was not accepted into the Hebrew Canon universally. Moreover, the Christian Church used the Book of Sirach enthusiastically in its early moral teaching, to such a degree that the book carried a taint in its own Jewish tradition. (Until very recently, we Catholics called this book Ecclesiasticus.) Protestant Reformers, for that reason, did not include Sirach in its reformed Biblical Canon, which is why you might not find Sirach in your Hampton Inn bedside bible.
In his discussion of the Wisdom literature, Father Boadt provides five distinct characteristics: (1) “a search for how to master life and understand how humans should behave before God;” (2) “a questioning attitude about the problems of life” such as suffering, inequality, death, and the prosperity of the wicked; (3) “a great interest in the universal human experiences that affect all people and not just believers in God;” (4) “a joy in the contemplation of creation and God as Creator;” and (5) a minimum of interest in the great acts of divine salvation history proclaimed by the Torah and the prophets.” (Boadt, p. 413-414)
Unlike the Book of Proverbs, Sirach is better organized and thematic, and in Sunday’s reading we have an elongated reflection on the relationship of father and son. It is such a rich text that one hardly knows where to start. Clearly there is continuity with the early history of Israel and the Law, notably the Fourth Commandment. But one can see how the passage of time and the secularization of thought had brought a new cast to covenantal law. The terse legal tone of commandment had changed to a humanitarian reflection on family life applicable to all cultures, one reason that Jewish purists were suspicious of the book.
There are other remarkable clues in this Sunday’s text to give us pause. There is a strong indication of belief in atonement for sin. “Whoever honors his father atones for sin” is an indication that Jews at this late date were giving much more thought to the particulars of salvation. The idea of life after death was not embraced in Jewish thought until just a few centuries before Christ, and was not universal among Jews in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees, for example, did not believe in a resurrection after death.
2 Maccabees 12:39–48, describing events in the mid-160’s B.C., cites Judas Maccabeus sending an offering to Jerusalem on behalf of the salvation of his fallen comrades in arms. Sirach reinforces the idea: “Kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins—a house raised in justice to you.”
One of the gifts of Israel’s heritage to the world is its sense of the importance of the family. Our text here explains in the opening that God ordains the order of the family, and it includes the authority of the mother (over male sons, no less.) The author notes that the honoring of parents leads to the blessings of one’s own marriage bed and the pleasure of a long life in watching the family grow.
The second paragraph transcends religious creeds entirely and maintains continuity with our own century in a way that is almost painful to behold. The author, Ben Sirach, understood the sufferings of old age. Intriguing is his mention of a failing mind, perhaps a reference to symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Ben Sirach had no clinical understanding of what impacted the mind, but he saw the symptoms and recognized that the diseases of seniority could change personality in many unpleasant ways; hence his advice to “revile him not all the days of his life.” His closing remarks imply rich spiritual blessings for the son who bears with his father as the shades of death begin to draw.
The choice of this reading for the Feast of the Holy Family has little to do with morality per se. As a boy I can remember the Holy Family sermons in my parish: “Every family must work to imitate the Holy Family.” One year my mother remarked after Mass, “Easy enough to say when you’re talking about God and two saints.” If we read the Christmas Gospels closely, they are not jolly accounts of a charming rural family. The American scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown, S.S., describes the two Gospel birth narratives (Luke and Matthew) as ‘mini-passion accounts” filled with foreboding. Sunday’s Gospel, from Luke, describes an intense encounter between the new mother, Mary, and the prophet Simeon in the Temple: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
The Holy Family is depicted in the Gospels as a strained and suffering familial community from beginning to end. It has much in common with Sirach’s faithful son who witnesses his father’s demise and still musters a love and respect for the shell of a parent who might not even recognize him. For this son in Sirach, as for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the question “did you not know I must be about my father’s business?” is a fittingly shared refrain.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: 2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
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When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
"Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!"
Nathan answered the king,
"Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you."
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?'
"It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever."
In this the fourth and final weekend of Advent and the fourth week of Tuesday blog entries on the Old Testament, you may be forgiven if you began to think that the Sunday Hebrew Scripture text in the Catholic Lectionary was devoted exclusively to the Prophet Isaiah or the three authors who wrote under that name. This weekend we have a dramatic shift to a historic narrative that rivals Homer and the best of ancient literature, the work of an unknown chronicler who is our best source for the life of King David and the emergence of a monarchy in Israel. The two volume work survives today as 1 and 2 Samuel, named after the last of the “judges” who ruled before the monarchy began.
A word about sources. If you are embarking on your first intense study of the Old Testament, Samuel 1 and 2 is truly worth your while to read cover to cover. My favorite translation is Robert Alter’s The David Story (1999) which I reviewed on its Amazon site a few years ago. Alter is the foremost American scholar and translator of Old Testament texts. His translations carry a commentary at the foot of each page which provide a wealth of content and context, though in 1 & 2 Samuel the text flow is quite self-explanatory. The David Story is available in Kindle form as well as hard copy.
The setting for Sunday’s reading takes us back five centuries before the Babylonian Captivity. Moses died before leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, and the task fell to Joshua. The “Promised Land” posed one minor difficulty—it was already someone else’s promised land, specifically the Canaanites.’ The Sunday text quotes the Lord’s reminder to the Prophet Nathan that “I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.” The Book of Joshua describes how the Lord did most of the heavy lifting in the battles of the Israelites to bring the Canaanites to submission.
Once the smoke of the Canaanite war had settled, Israel was ruled by a series of warlords known collectively as Judges, and hence the name of the Old Testament Book of Judges. The final four Judges are probably best known to us: Gideon, Samson, Deborah, and Samuel. 1 Kings begins with Samuel, widely respected for his wisdom, facing increasing pressure from his countrymen to anoint a king to provide battlefield leadership and unity in the face of a growing Philistine threat. As Father Boadt observes (home page,195) the Chronicler [author] records a difference of opinion within Israel about whether it was wise to invest so much power into one man. In any event, Saul was anointed the first king of Israel. An insecure man, Saul is described by Boadt as a valiant warrior who won several battles but failed to finally suppress the Philistines and unite the Israelites. Saul’s insecurities led him to alienate himself from his mentor Samuel, his son Jonathan, and the young warrior David, who slew the Philistine hero, Goliath. Saul tried to kill David, who fled the region and recruited a mercenary army to fight his way to the throne of Israel.
2 Samuel is the story of David’s kingship. On many levels he was a masterful and successful ruler. When, a millennium later, Jesus was welcomed by his people, he was saluted with the cry “Hosanna to the Son of David.” In Sunday’s reading, David is told through the prophet Nathan in so many words that there is nothing he can do to return to the Lord what the Lord has done and will do for David. This reading is inserted on the Fourth Sunday of Advent because of God’s promise to David that he would “raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”
This prophesy passed through multiple interpretations. It could and was applied to Solomon, David’s successor, perhaps the most visibly successful king in the Israelite dynasty. As the kingship fell into decline after Solomon, the Davidic promise was interpreted through the hope that another king on the horizon would restore and reunite Israel, which over time separated into a northern and a southern kingdom. In later pre-Christian times the Davidic prophesy took on a more generic—even apocalyptic—look forward to better days. Does this prophesy apply to Jesus? The answer is yes, if one understands the term “kingdom” correctly. The Gospels describe the excitement of the crowds at the appearance of Jesus and apply to him the term “Son of David.” They evidently saw his potential as a leader in their Roman-occupied land.
Jesus would indeed usher in a new kingdom, but as he would say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The new kingdom spoken of in Sunday’s first reading would reach far beyond crowns and kingdoms. The glory of the ultimate successor of David would shine forth in perfect love and obedience of the Father of Jesus. For this reason, the Sunday text is paired with St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, where a humble maiden gave her consent to the establishment of a new reign in the hearts of all people of the earth.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 61:1-2a, 10-11
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
We are following the liturgical calendar in our reading of the Hebrew Scripture; the selection of first readings throughout the Lectionary is steered by the liturgical season and the Gospel of the Sunday. This Sunday (December 17) the Gospel comes from the first chapter of St. John the Evangelist, and describes an interrogation of John the Baptist by priests of the temple in Jerusalem. The Baptist had evidently drawn large crowds by his preaching, and his listeners had concluded that he was more than he appeared to be. The priests asked about his identity, and the Baptist states that he is not “the Christ,” the one who is to come. When pressed, the Baptist states "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
'make straight the way of the Lord."
The Baptist is quoting Chapter 40 of Deutero-Isaiah, a text written during the Babylonian Captivity, marked by themes of longing and comfort for an exiled people. The Isaiah text in its entirety—all three segments--have a close relationship with the Gospels. In Luke 4, for example, Jesus reads the words of Trito-Isaiah, ““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and proceeds to tell his synagogue listeners that this text is now being fulfilled in their midst.
Sunday’s first reading serves two purposes in its location here. In the first instance, Isaiah 61 is applied to the description of the one for whom the Baptist is preparing, and the kinds of ministry he will exercise. Our house expert, Father Boadt, explains that Trito-Isaiah’s optimism here would have sounded strangely out of place in the post-Exile circumstances, which to put it mildly, were grim. I have written earlier of conditions in Jerusalem after 539 B.C. when exiles began to make their way home from Babylon and encountered hostility from the surviving remnant, as well as a gravely weakened political situation.
The entire Old Testament is time conditioned. Its authors look to past, present, and future from their own lived experience. In the case of the prophets, these preachers assume the identity of God and/or his messenger, saying what they believe God wants them to say at a juncture in history. Many of us have grown up with the idea that prophets are seers considering the future, and it is true that they are not unfamiliar with future oriented apocalyptic thinking and style, as we see in Sunday’s reading. But as often as not, prophets look backward: their call is a return to the pristine past enjoyed by Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians, gave them the Law of Life, and led them into the Promised Land.
The first paragraph calls to mind the Egyptian Captivity, how God heard their cries and brought both tender mercy and a fierce retribution upon the captors of Egypt, climaxed by the drama at the Red Sea. Trito-Isaiah, writing in an age of new circumstances—including loss of independence and kings of the Davidic line—is reminding his generation that if God has saved Israel before in similar circumstances, there is no reason to think he won’t hear the cries of his people again—if they can put aside discord among themselves and focus upon an internal holiness, a new purity of heart.
The second paragraph of Sunday’s reading takes a different emphasis, one that would have resonated well with Christians in the years after the Ascension of the Lord, and particularly in the present day. In the second paragraph the family of Israel is clothed in a robe of salvation and a mantle of justice; Israel is dressed “like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” She will become an object of great beauty, desired in every sense of the word, and fruitful as any vineyard. Her fecundity will spring forth “before all the nations.” Boadt explains that the later prophets turned to the theme of Israel as a universal sacrament, so to speak, of life and fulfillment. “Salvation” in Israel was becoming gradually redefined, from fulfillment in a powerful sense under future kings like David, to a more spiritual change of the communal heart. This change in emphasis makes practical sense given Israel’s diminished political status as a vassal state after the Babylonian Captivity among its stronger neighbors. This was the condition in Jesus’ time, when the Herods served at the pleasure of their Roman overlords.
Trito-Isaiah strongly emphasized Israel’s collective witness of holiness. It is the entire nation that is bedecked with jewels and the object of desires of the human hearts of all nations. Israel is described as a universal source of salvation for all nations. Again, this would be interpreted later by the Christian Church as the intent of Christ—that the body of Christ’s followers would always give a collective example of unity. Trito-Isaiah’s vision would assist the Church in defining herself as bedecked with the Holy Spirit in a common life of fraternal love.
There are many of us, myself included, who worry at the fissures and cracks in present-day Catholicism, let alone among the other Christian Churches. I don’t have an easy answer to this except to say that the intent of Christ—and our Jewish forebears in faith—was that we be one. There are those who argue that adherence to a rite or a legal interpretation carries as much weight as unity around the table of the Lord. One needs to look at the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb to uncover a defense for disunion. The divisions in post-Captivity Israel inspired Trito-Isaiah to his eloquent portrayal of God’s extravagant blessings upon a future day of glory. Advent is the season of identity—we are that day, the people united in Christ as a light for the world. Woe to those who dismember the Body of Christ.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
I pointed out last week that the Biblical book referred to as the Prophet Isaiah is believed to be three separate works in one cover: Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah (or second Isaiah), and Trito-Isaiah (or third Isaiah). Scholars believe that the three sections correspond to the before, during, and after periods of the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century B.C. The first and the third are “angry” books. But Second Isaiah, from which next Sunday’s reading is taken, carries a different attitude. There are several Bible books written during the exile, perhaps most famously the text of Psalm 137, which you may remember as the sad melody from the musical Godspel. Psalm 137 is believed to be written early in the exile when the memories of home were still fresh and hope of deliverance a long way off.
Deutero-Isaiah, which begins at Chapter 40, has a much different tone, leading scholars to believe it was written later in the exile when it became clear that the Persian leader Cyrus was about to overtake the sitting Babylonian government. We know nothing about this author who has come down through history with the name of the original Isaiah, the author of chapters 1-39. His theology and outlook are distinct and intriguing, and our “house expert,” Father Lawrence Boadt, (see home page) lays out some of Deutero-Isaiah’s (or D-I’s) religious outlook (pp. 371-76).
D-I’s theology begins with the principle that God is all powerful. At the onset of the captivity one might have doubted not just whether God was willing to rescue Israel, but even more depressingly, was God able to conquer foreign conquerors. D-I lived and preached at a time when deliverance seemed more likely; perhaps Cyrus’s benign reputation had preceded him. The second point in D-I’s outlook is that God will give mercy and forgiveness. The opening line of Sunday’s text, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God,” reestablishes to suffering exiles that God’s basic stance toward Israel is love and not wrath. Whatever has happened before has not changed this basic truth.
D-I preaches that God will do new things never done before. Israel’s religion was essentially a celebration of history, particularly the Passover and the giving of the Law. D-I introduces an apocalyptic note of a future that remains hidden. In Isaiah 43 God commands his people to stop looking to the past and to focus on the new things He is performing now. One of these “new things” will be a new exodus, as God will lead his people out of Babylon just he led them out of Egypt centuries before. It is hard to understate Israel’s admiration for the pagan King Cyrus as an agent of God, who would indeed allow Israel to return to its land. D-I is remarkable for his universalism and concern for all nations. He envisions a great restoration of Israel by God, making the homeland the city on the hill which would unify all of God’s creation. Restoration here implies a religious awakening, not a military resurgence under a soldier-king. Israel, in D-I’s thinking, is God’s gift to the world. These universalist tendencies will cause difficulties when the exiles return home to the parochial outlook of Jews who remained in Jerusalem.
The Catholic Lectionary has placed Deutero-Isaiah in the Advent sequence of reading because of its strong emphasis upon God’s future work of restoration through the faithful body of Israel. It was not hard for the early Church to identify Jesus as the personification of the hopes and promises of Deutero-Isaiah—Jesus as redeemer/savior and universal king. The Gospel of Sunday’s Mass is the opening of St. Mark’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist describes the deeds of Jesus in terms that D-I would recognize—one who would do things never seen before.