Archive for December, 2011

Gospel, Luke 2:16-21  Abel, the good son of Adam and Eve was a shepherd whom his brother Cain, a farmer, killed out of envy for his closer relationship with God.  Abraham and his descendants were shepherds.  David was a shepherd.  The role of kings and others in authority was to care for God’s flock.  Little wonder God himself was considered the shepherd of his people (Psalm 23) or that Jesus would eventually call himself “the Good Shepherd”. Little wonder other nations associated the Jewish people with sheep and shepherds, and so Luke, writing from the perspective of a Greek to an audience of primarily non-Jews, emphasizes the announcement of Jesus’ birth to real shepherds rather than religious and civil leaders who were failing in their responsibility to shepherd God’s people. 

The shepherds of Bethlehem had a responsibility unlike any other shepherds in Israel.  It was required that a lamb be sacrificed in the temple of Jerusalem each morning and evening in addition to the other lambs sacrificed during the day.  The lambs were to be without blemish (see Exodus 12:5 regarding the requirement of unblemished lambs on Passover).  To assure a regular supply of unblemished lambs, it is believed that the temple authorities maintained their own private flocks pastured in Bethlehem around five or six miles from Jerusalem.  Thus, shepherds responsible for the lambs to be sacrificed at the temple were the first to see the Lamb of God, the “unblemished lamb” (1 Peter 1:19), who would be sacrificed as a redemptive offering for us. 

Jesus’ circumcision, as with all Jewish boys, took place on the eighth day after his birth. This timing requirement is so important to Jewish people that circumcisions were to be performed on the Sabbath, if it were the eighth day, rather than waiting one more day.  Circumcision was practiced by other Semitic peoples, a practice which the Jewish people adopted from the Canaanites on their arrival in Palestine (Genesis 17:9-14).  It became a sign of the individual person entering into the covenant of the Jewish people with God.  As such it was also required for an older male converting to the Jewish faith that he be circumcised. 

I came across a note that, according to Jewish custom, no baby showers were held prior to the birth of the child due to the greater possibility of miscarriages, the child being stillborn, or dying from some complication soon after birth.  For this reason, it was considered both bad luck and a possible cause for regret by getting too attached to the baby by gathering baby items (and then having reminders of shattered hopes) or even discussing baby names until the baby was born.  This gave me a bit of insight into the account of people’s amazement at the naming of John the Baptist.  Given that tradition, it would have been very possible that Elizabeth and Zachariah had not discussed the baby’s name prior to that moment.  Also, we have in the same account an example of neighbors coming together to rejoice with a baby shower party which undoubtedly included some singing and bestowal of gifts.  With the birth of Jesus, lacking neighbors in the vicinity, the angels did the singing, and, although the angel had told Mary in advance what the child was to be called, Jesus was officially named the day of his circumcision.

Reading 1, Numbers 6:22-27  This prayer is commonly invoked by Jewish rabbis and cantors as the benediction of most services, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah’s.  Jewish parents use this to bless their children on the eve of the Sabbath.  Moses was God’s prophet or mouthpiece, but Aaron and his sons were the consecrated priests of the covenant.  As such they, not Moses, were responsible for official worship and care of the tabernacle.  As the Catholic Church directs priests as to the wording of the blessings they give, so God communicates through Moses the wording that Jewish priests are to use.  As with Catholic understanding of the role of priests, Jewish priests did not possess divine powers in and of themselves but were two-way channels or instruments through whom God communicated a blessing to the people and people communicated their petitions to God.

The word “Lord” here is the divine name “Yahweh” which Jewish people, out of respect for God, were not to pronounce (such was limited to the high priest who would whisper the divine name in the holy of holies once a year).  Whenever the divine name appeared, another word was substituted.  In some traditions the word “Jehovah” is used for this purpose.  Hebrew originally had no letters for vowels, only consonants.  Marking were added under letters to indicate vowel sounds.  The words YaHWeH and YeHoWaH would thus be spelled the same but using different vowel sounds would still respect God’s real name. 

The word “keep” is to be understood as “to protect”.  As to what is to be protected, Jewish commentaries interpret this as protecting what was received in the blessing (usually referring to tangible things such as health, strength, riches, possessions, peace) as well as protecting the recipient from being corrupted by the attainment of material blessings.   

For God to “let his face shine upon you” was associated with light or illumination of the mind and heart rather than material blessings.  This second blessing asks for wisdom and understanding of the purpose for which God has bestowed any material blessings.

To “look upon you kindly” is literally to “turn his head in your direction”, a sign of God giving you special attention.  Giving “peace” is giving “shalom”, which encompasses all positive wishes and blessings.  This is basically asking God to turn to you and share a Sign of Peace.  We all share in that priestly act of invoking God’s blessing for one another with the Sign of Peace at Mass.

Reading II, Galatians 4:4-7  The word “sent” in Greek has a sense of being sent on a mission.  Here the mission is to ransom or redeem someone out of slavery, meaning paying the price to buy someone’s freedom.  But the gift goes a step beyond freedom to adoption.  In the ancient world people who incurred huge debts which they were unable to repay could be sold into slavery along with their family members (see Matthew 18:25).  There were instances in the ancient world of people buying a slave’s freedom or freeing a slave one had purchased and then making the former slave an heir through adoption. The story Ben-Hur tells of a galley slave who saves the life of his Roman master and is subsequently adopted as his son and heir.  The depth of this personal relationship with God is shown in allowing us to call God “Abba”, a very personal familial address similar to “Daddy”.         

The proof or confirmation of being God’s sons and daughters comes with the bestowal of the same Spirit, “the Spirit of his Son”.  The Holy Spirit is given to guide us to know how to live as true sons and daughters of God and to give us strength to actually do live as such.  This is symbolized for us through the Sacrament of Confirmation.

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There are several readings assigned for the various Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  We will be using the following here at St. Dominic:

4pm Christmas Eve – This Mass is oriented to children.  The readings assigned for the vigil (including the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew 1:1-15) are rather difficult for children to follow and understand.  The Church gives permission to replace readings for Masses with children so we will read the following:  Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-2, 5-6  Galatians 4:4-7  Luke 2:1-14

10:30pm Christmas Eve – we will use the readings for the Mass at Midnight (910 in the Gather hymnal): Isaiah 9:1-6, 14  Titus 2:11-14  Luke 2:1-14

8am and 10:30am Christmas Day – We will use the readings from the Christmas Mass at Dawn (911 in the gather hymnal): Isaiah 62:11-12, 15  Titus 3:4-7  Luke 2:15-20

You will note that the first readings all come from the prophet Isaiah who, more than any other, prophesied the coming of the Messiah.  The gospel texts give different perspectives of how the birth of Jesus took place and was announced.  Mark and John do not include birth and infancy narratives in their gospels.  Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus as an adult coming to be baptized and begin his public ministry.  By the time John wrote his gospel questions had arisen regarding Jesus’ divine nature.  John, therefore, goes back to Jesus as the Word, God from before time began, and then bridges in a few verses to Jesus as an adult, the light of the world.  The prologue of John’s gospel is assigned for Christmas Mass of the Day but we will use the readings from the Mass at Dawn.

Matthew wrote his gospel primarily to people of Jewish background.  He begins his gospel, therefore, with Jesus’ genealogy beginning with Abraham to show both Jesus’ roots in the Jewish family and, through groupings of 14 generations (the number 7 and its multiples were symbolic of perfection to Jewish people), to express that Jesus is the   perfection of the faith of Abraham, the kingship of David, and the Word of God which became more central to Jewish people during the Babylonian exile.  The birth of Jesus follows.  Note that in Matthew’s account the angel comes to Joseph, not Mary.  The husband/father was the faith leader In Jewish families.  The birth takes place in Bethlehem.  It was very symbolically important for Jesus, who would be the perfection of David’s kingship, to be born in the city of David.  There is no indication of the birth taking place in a stable or of having come from Nazareth or any other place prior to the birth.  When the Magi come they find Mary and Jesus in a house. 

Luke’s gospel begins with considerable text dedicated to comparing Jesus with John the Baptist: the announcement of the birth of John / the announcement of the birth of Jesus / Mary visiting Jesus during which John, within the womb of his mother, leaps for joy at the coming of Jesus within the womb of Mary / the amazing birth of John / the more amazing birth of Jesus.  As we have noted from the gospel readings during Advent, there were apparently many people who had either received the baptism of John or had a faith conversion through their testimony who  had not yet come to know about Jesus.  It is likely that Paul encountered a number of such people on his missionary journeys. Luke wrote his gospel as a member of Paul’s evangelizing team and was certainly instructed by Paul to include the comparisons between John and Jesus as a means of evangelizing them to come to Jesus.  The Jewish genealogy, so important to Matthew’s readers, was not so central to Paul’s primarily Greek audience.  As a result, Luke waits to put Jesus’ genealogy at the end of the third chapter and then, instead of beginning with Abraham,  goes all the way back to Adam to establish the connection with his non-Jewish readers.  Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem.  Judah, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem were located, was the bastion of Judaism.  Up in Galilee there was more of a mixture of peoples.  This would have more in common and be more appealing to Luke’s audience.  The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, not Joseph.  The role of women as seers or people who received divine messages was more acceptable in Greek culture.  By tradition, Mary spent the last years of her life near Ephesus, the Greek city at the center of the areas Paul evangelized.  By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Mary may have been living in that region, giving her story greater influence for evangelization.  Luke emphasizes that Joseph and Mary were financially of the poor working class, something which would likewise appeal to many people in Greek society.  There is no visit of the Magi or flight into Egypt.  Luke includes the announcement of the birth to shepherds, an account not found in Matthew, their visitation and subsequent announcement of Jesus’ birth.  The angel announces to the shepherds that a savior has been born.  It is noteworthy that Luke is the only synoptic gospel that uses the word “savior”, and the book with the most references to a savior is the prophet Isaiah. 

Our telling of the Christmas story merges the two gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke into one.  It is often easier to postulate that Matthew and Luke simply focused on different moments and details than deal with the possibility that they were manipulating the story with some literary license for better evangelical effect.  Some people believe that all the facts or details in the bible must be scientifically historically accurate if the bible is to be considered “truly inspired by God”.  A brief comparison of the two genealogies will indicate that they cannot both pass that litmus test of “truth” for not only the names but the numbers of generations are inconsistent.  If we begin from the perspective that the gospel were written, not as history, but for purposes of evangelization, the “truth” of the bible need not be chained to historical accuracy in the details of the account.  While accepting the historical accuracy of the basic tenets of faith, the “truth” of the bible is to be found primarily in what it tells us about the relationship of God with people.  In that, the two gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus communicate important messages or truths to their particular audiences.

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Gospel, Luke 1:26-38  The name Gabriel means “strong one of God” (the -el at the beginning or end of many Hebrew names refers to God).  In the Old Testament the angel Gabriel was twice sent to Daniel, first to give him a message from God and, then, to help him understand the message (Daniel 8:16, 9:21).  This is his second of two appearances in the New Testament, the first being to Zachariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:19).  His presence in the stories of both John and Jesus provides one more tie between John and Jesus to draw followers of John the Baptist to take the next step to Jesus.  Note how the story line of the first two chapters in Luke bounces back and forth with the situations surrounding the birth of both figures.

We believe that the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary took place at the moment she said “Yes” to God.  That is why the feast of the Annunciation is placed on March 25, nine months before Christmas.  We don’t really know how old Mary was at the time, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating.  The minimum age for marriage under Jewish law was 13 for boys and 12 for girls.  The official betrothal (far more binding than our modern era understanding of engagement) could take place a year prior to the full-fledged marriage.  The Talmud recommends that a man marry by the age of 18.  Therefore, it would not have been unusual for Mary to have been betrothed to Joseph by the age of 15 or 16. 

Did Mary understand what it would mean to be mother of Jesus?  Although we believe that Mary was given a special gift to never experience an attraction to things contrary to the will of God (her Immaculate Conception), that does not mean she received a gift of intellectual understanding regarding her son’s full identity and mission.  Note how confused she was (Luke 2:49) when twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and explained himself by saying, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Years later, Jesus’ relatives…presumably including Mary…go down to Capernaum to bring him home to Nazareth saying, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 4:21).  Jesus was running into serious trouble with the Jewish authorities.  The family probably did not really believe Jesus to be out of his mind.  Since was an acceptable defense to get a person off the hook, the family was simply trying to get him out of danger.  Still, such a statement indicates Mary’s lack of understanding regarding her son’s identity and mission.  While this may at first seem to minimize the blessedness of Mary, it actually enhances my appreciation of her dedication to God and the divine will.  Her “Yes” was not based on understanding but on faith.

Reading 1, 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16  I have read that in some native American cultures, a person’s worth was measured more in the magnificence of gift-giving than personal accumulation of wealth.  That same attitude was present to some extent in Jewish society.  We see it particularly in showing hospitality (consider how Abram ran after people passing by to invite them to his home and show them hospitality, Genesis 18), but it played a role in other forms of gift-giving.  David wanted to show God both his appreciation and his personal worth or character by offering to build the temple.  God, of course, shows David that God’s generosity cannot be outdone. 

I find it interesting that the prophet Nathan gives David the wrong advice.  Giving David permission to build a temple for God seemed a no-brainer, but he neglected to consult with God on the matter.  This is reminiscent of the prophet Samuel who had made a similar error some forty years previous (1 Samuel 16), assuming that David’s eldest brother was the one whom he should anoint as king because of his noble appearance.  God corrected both prophets but did not reprimand them.  Even these great prophets assumed human logic to be sufficient in those moments without needing to consult with God.  How many times do we make the same mistake?

Reading II, Romans 16:25-27   These verses are placed at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  They are not included in all ancient manuscripts and, when included, are sometimes placed at the end of chapters 14 and 15 instead of 16.  This leads Scripture scholars to wonder whether it was part of the original letter or was added on by someone at a later date putting the central points of the letter in a prayer form as a summary and conclusion to the letter.

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Gospel, John 1:6-8, 19-28  John the Baptist receives a great deal of attention in all four gospels.  His ministry, although relatively brief, must have had a tremendous impact.  The fact that the gospel of John, written perhaps 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and some 30 years after the other gospels, gives such emphasis to John the Baptist indicates that John the Baptist’s influence was still strong.  It seems likely that significant numbers of people who had either received the baptism of John or became aware of it through friends who did had not made the next step to Jesus.  Such was the case in the years of Paul’s missionary journeys as indicated in Acts 18:25 with  Apollos, a native of Alexandria in Egypt who was living in Ephesus and “knew only the baptism of John”.  It seems that the scripture writers wanted to bring people from John to Jesus by not denying the importance of John and his ministry, but showing how John’s baptism and ministry were preparing the way for Jesus.  Putting that intention into the mouth of John as in this text was a clear way to honor John while pointing on to Jesus.  I like the phrasing of the gospel as John, in response to the first question “Who are you?”, “admitted and did not deny it but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” Talk about emphatic!  He knew what they were after and the message that he was not the Christ was clear for all who would later read John’s gospel.

John gave “testimony” to Jesus.  He was a witness.  Although Jesus was in a way “on trial” before the Jewish authorities during his years of ministry and the Church in subsequent years, the testimony was presented, not in a court of law, but in the court of individual hearts weighing the evidence as to the true identity of Jesus.  Each person would give the “verdict” in either accepting or rejecting Jesus.  This “testimony” theme runs throughout John’s gospel (see: 1:19, 1:32, 2:25, 3:32-33, 4:39, 5:31-37, 8:13-14, 13:21, 19:35 and 21:24).  The Greek word for “testimony” and “to testify” is “martyr”, a word which took on the meaning of giving one’s life for one’s beliefs.  As powerful as verbal testimony can be, dying for what one believes is the greatest testimony one can give.

The word “light” appears six times in verses 4-9 of the first chapter of John’s gospel…23 times in the entire gospel of John.  In most instances the word is presented as a title referring to Jesus. In addition to this Sunday’s gospel passage, the following are a few of those usages: “the Light has come into the world” (Jn. 3:19), “whoever practices the truth comes to the Light” (Jn. 3:21), “I am the Light of the world” (Jn. 8:12),”The Light will be among you only a little while…while you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become children of the Light” (Jn. 12:35-36).  The Greek word for light is “phos”.  You can see the e word “phos” in words such as “phosphorous” meaning “to carry light”, and “photograph” meaning “to write with light”, and “photosynthesis” meaning to “put together or make with light”.    The contrast between light and darkness is more than being able to see or not.  Light is also associated with warmth, energy, and understanding.

Reading 1, Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11  The initial verses of this text, spoken by the prophet in regard to the restoration of the Jewish people and nation following the Babylonian Captivity, are quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry.  The scene then will be the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth where he has been invited to do the reading for which he selected this text from Isaiah.  It was common to the synagogue service that the person who did the reading be the first to comment on its meaning after which others could voice their opinions.  Jesus summed up the reading succinctly, commenting (Luke 4:21): “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The “year of favor” that would be announced referred to the Jewish Jubilee Year as described and mandated in Leviticus 25.  That text mandated that prisoners and Jewish slaves were to be set free, debts pardoned, and land returned to former owners every fiftieth year.  The “fiftieth” was determined as 7×7 years plus the new year, seven being the number symbolic of perfection.  There is no clear indication from Jewish history that this mandate was actually put into effect completely and consistently.

Reading II, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   Like parents’ instructions to their kids to “do your homework, no TV, don’t forget to do the dishes, behave, and get to bed on time” while heading out the door, Paul ends his letter to the Thessalonians with this list of imperatives.  Jesus does something similar with his final instructions to the apostles just before ascending to heaven (Matthew 28:19-20).  It’s a worthy list for Christians of every age and location.

The word “rejoice”, found also in the first reading, is significant for this Sunday which in past times was called “Gaudete Sunday”…“gaudete” being the Latin word for “rejoice”.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council the Mass for the Third Sunday of Advent began with the chanting of Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I say it again: rejoice!”

In Greek the word for “rejoice” is “kaire” (KIE-ray) or, in plural form, “kairete” (KIE-ray-tay).  The word was commonly used as a greeting.  It is the word the angel Gabriel used on bringing God’s message to Mary (Luke 1:28): “Kaire!”  It is the encouragement given at the end of the Beatitudes promising eternal blessings for all who have been insulted and persecuted for their faith in Jesus (Matthew 5:12): “Kairete and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven!”  It is Jesus’ teaching his disciples on return from a successful mission to prioritize what brings them joy (Luke 10:20): “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you but kairete because your names are written in heaven.”  The reason for rejoicing can only be understood in perspective of the eternal glory which will be the blessing of all who persevere in their faith.

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