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3rd Sunday Cycle A

The history of all peoples, individuals and nations, in our own time also and in our own lives has a certain pattern.  The words of God’s spokesman are about this but with the twist that God can always be relied upon to bring bightness and joy after it all.

Even in the early church there were divisions among Christians with different takes on what it meant to be a Christian.  Paul writes to such Christians in Corinth.  He says all should remember that it is Christ who died for them and whom they should together follow!

The gospel picks up on the ideas of the first reading – seeing Jesus as the light for all.  But it also tells us of discipleship – those called may be quite different from each other but are called equally to follow Jesus in their new life.

Further background can be found here.

2nd Sunday Ordinary Time

15th January 2017

In the Isaiah passage the Lord speaks to one of His spokesmen (such is a prophet), with a quite progressive message for the chosen people (for us); it announces that though they are chosen yet His purpose is to extend salvation to all peoples everywhere.

About the year 52 Paul writes to the Church congregations in Corinth where he had originally preached.  Though he was going to address some awkward issues with them, he opens the letter positively to these people called by God and prays for them to have grace and peace.

Some early Christians were more devoted to the Baptist than to Jesus, so in his Gospel John clearly reminds them of the Baptist’s own words about the superiority of Christ.  We notice that the word ‘sin’ in the Lamb of God saying is singular and so implying all sinfulness in the world which will be overcome by Christ.

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Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, cycle A

8th January 2017

 

The Readings

Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, seems to have had an epiphany, that is, a revelation of something about God, of His relationship with Abraham’s descendants: they will be blest and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through them (Gen 12:1-3). It was the prophets who regularly tried to re-awaken this epiphany, revealing as accurately as they could what God wants for His creatures. At the time of our first reading, the Jews are probably just back in Jerusalem after suffering exile in Babylon and looking at the dilapidated city and Temple, they need a ‘bright star’ to lift their spirits; so we read from the prophet’s poem encouraging them to realise what can be – to see the work of God in their surroundings – which he interprets as best as he can, speaking of the wealth of nations coming to them as gifts from around the world, from Midian, Ephah and Sheba. The responsorial psalm (72) is appropriate to this idea as well.

What we think we know of God is always inadequate – the revelation (epiphany) is always in need of improvement and correction. So it is that many of the Jews in the first few decades after Christ could not accept His attitude to sinners and non-Jews; and even some of those who became Christians thought that non-Jews would need to accept the rules of Judaism in order to become Christians. But Paul had seen that the will of God was different, mysteriously extending God’s love and forgiveness to all who would have it; this was the distinctive revelation of Christ; Paul had the grace of receiving this epiphany of something more about the purpose of God for the world. Paul wrote (Ephesians 3:2-6) that pagans have the same privilege, and even invents a new word to try to express this mystery, namely, they are (συνσωμα) ‘part of the same body with’ the Jews in Christ. And this welcome message for us who are also part of the body of Christ today.

The gospel is the story of the magi, the wise men from the east, following their star to find Jesus; it is about this that we chiefly use the word Epiphany. The magi, like us, have to find their way towards the mystery of God’s great closeness to us humans through Jesus who is both human and Divine. And we, like the wise men, will have to learn from others, others who know something of the Scriptures. There are many celebrities and famous people we may be tempted to try to emulate, but we must find the right star for us; we must be wary of those with unsuitable motives; we must have our dream and stay close to that Jesus who is our ruler and gentle inspiration. And as we move towards this perfect example of what it is to be human, we must bring our gifts and talents – we all have something to give. So the gospel story is about the revelation of God to us, about how we understand it and how we are to respond as best we can – a story of great depth, beauty and personal significance.

Mary, Mother of God

1st January, 2017

The book of Numbers, Chapter 6, verses 22-27 tells us of the origin of a Blessing which has been in use by the Jewish people from centuries before Christ up to the present time. It is now generally referred to as the Benediction and as such is used by many Christian denominations though not generally by Catholics. The words are very poetic and express a crescendo both in rhythm and in meaning. In the first phrase the general term ‘bless’ becomes made more precise with the word ‘keep.’ It is a blessing that God maintains us in existence. The second phrase asks that He smiles on us and as He looks He is draw to favour us (to feel gracious towards us). And the third phrase tells us God actually reveals His face to us and this mystery gives us a deep sense of peace whatever troubles we may have.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is addressed to a people who were thought to descend from Celtic tribes (according to Caesar in his writing about the Gallic Wars). In chapter 4, verses 4-7 Paul really tries to explain the dual nature of Jesus, being both human and divine. For a time Christians often used the phrase ‘born of Mary’ as a way to express His humanity, but after the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century the title we use today Mary, mother of God, was used to emphasise that Jesus also needed mothering like any human person. But Paul goes on to elaborate that the consequence of God’s Son taking on our humanity is that we share in the same relationship to God – we are children of God and heirs too.

The gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 16-21 is largely the same as last Sunday’s gospel, but adds a reference to the circumcision and naming of Jesus. We notice also the amazement of those who heard the report from the shepherds about the nature of this baby, which caused Mary also to ponder over the meaning and implication of all this. His name is ‘savour’ and this is what He is for humanity – God has become one of us and is dependant even now, in some mysterious way, on us, in order to bring to completion the coming of the Kingdom at the end of time.

 

Christmas Dawn

25th December   Christmas Dawn

The first reading is from Isaiah, and it is one of those many times that those who speak the words of God to the people are happy to announce that all will be well.

In the second reading (Titus 3:4-7) we have the New Testament development of the message of Isaiah. Expounding the nature of the good that comes to us from God and adding that it is already with us through our relationship with Jesus the Son of God and our saviour.

In the Gospel of Luke 2:15-20 he chooses to tell us that the birth announcement of Jesus was given first to shepherds; they were lowly people who didn’t get to the religious services often but were busy out in the open caring for their sheep. God’s angels told them of it and they went off to see this wonderful fulfillment of all the hopes of the chosen people of God; and the human birthplace of God was in the simplest of circumstances; after seeing this the shepherds went off and spread the good news to others. This episode tells us something about God’s dealing with people and in Luke’s story Mary herself pondered on these things.

4th Sunday of Advent

18th December

The first reading is a small part of a story loosely based on an event in the history of the Jews (in the second book of Kings) around 733 BC. The story tells of Aram and Ephraim (namely, Syria and Israel) in the north, joining together against Judah in the south, to try to force an alliance of the three as a defense against the threat of the Assyrian empire in the east. In Judah in the south, the prophet Isaiah has told its King, Ahaz, that he should trust God to defend his people and not worry; God even offers the king a sign to show His support, but Ahaz turns the offer down. Like a very understanding and caring negotiator, God will give him, and his court, a sign anyway, which is our first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14). The message is delivered through Isaiah, God’s spokesman; “Look,” he says “that young marriageable girl there. She will become pregnant and produce a son whom she will call Emmanuel (God’s with us)” – the name is significant because people often gave their children names that express something about their situation or hopes, so Emmanuel might mean that by the time of the birth, the people will feel sure that ‘God is with them’.   In fact Ahaz called upon the emperor of Assyria to help him, rather than rely on God; so Judah was safe, at least for the time being and the two northern kingdoms were beaten by the Assyrians. This story raises the question of how to proceed in life’s difficulties; whether to trust God or to take evasive or defensive action oneself; but it also points to hope and belief that one day God will be with the people in a reassuring way – with us.

In the second reading (Romans 1:1-7) we have the opening address of the great exposition of the way that Paul saw the good news arising from Christ (the ‘gospel’ according to Paul). In conformity with letter-writing custom we would expect it to read “Paul, to all God’s beloved in Rome, grace and peace.” But in his letters Paul usually elaborates on this, and here we have the longest introduction of all his letters and its just one sentence in the original Greek. Of himself he says he is a worker with a remit and a special role – a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and appointed to deliver the good news. Paul has not visited the Romans yet and wants to reassure them of his credentials, and so adds a reference to an early creedal formula which they will most likely know – the good news is that through His human nature Jesus is descended from David, and by God’s Spirit has been revealed as Son of God at his resurrection. Paul wants to emphasize that he has a call from God to work with Gentiles – the majority of the Christians in Rome would come under that designation. He ends with the customary Greek salutation (here translated as grace, but meaning ‘rejoice’) and the traditional Jewish wish of Shalom (peace). It speaks to us, because we can both rejoice and have a deep inner peace because of the reality that we celebrate at Christmas.

Matthew’s infancy narrative is well structured and begins with a genealogy in three sections highlighting Jesus’ connections through Joseph, with Abraham, David and the Jews in exile in Babylon. This is followed by five sections that recount the birth, the magi, the trip to Egypt, the slaughter of babies and the return to Nazareth, each ending with a quotation fulfilled. In this whole section , Joseph plays an important role and echoes the Old Testament Joseph (the one with the coat of many colours) whose life was threatened by his brothers and who ended up in Egypt, he was the person who had meaningful dreams and his descendants, the Jews, eventually settled in the land where Jesus was born. In our gospel this day the story is of Mary betrothed to Joseph when he finds she is expecting. He doesn’t want to cause a fuss and has decided to separate quietly, but then has a dream and an assurance from an angel and the saviour is born to the couple. The section ends with the fulfillment quotation found in our first reading,. This context tells us that God’s way with the world is consistent throughout history; the story of the Jews from the time of Abraham, though the birth of Jesus is a definite and distinctive instance of this and a decisive step towards the fulfillment of God’s creation of a perfect world.

3rd Sunday of Advent Cycle A

11th December 2016

From the last verse of the first reading (Isaiah 35:1-6a,10) it seems clear that this passage is referring to the return from exile in Babylon. We have to realise the symbolic significance of the desert; we still use the word today in our language and culture for a situation or a time of apparent hopelessness – when our world seems ‘barren’ (a similar word to desert). In the history of the Jews it begins with their escape from Egypt and their difficulties for a whole generation (as the story implies) of wandering in the desert – where God through Moses has led them. The period of exile in Babylon was a similar set-back for them as a nation but with a feeling of abandonment by God. So when the return to their own land is described it is envisioned as the blossoming of the desert. After the centuries of the editing of this book of Isaiah, we can only assume that our passage originated as a word of hope (perhaps when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, with his policy of repatriation). The figurative blossoming of the desert is followed with the hope of miraculous cure for disadvantaged individuals. But then, as now for us, it is a poem of the wonderful and good things that God does and will do – an appropriate reading in preparation for celebrating the birth of Christ and all that means for us.

In the second reading (James 5:7-10) we have a letter that has not always been easily accepted as of much value. It seems to be one of those books of which there were many in those days, that was attributed to a prestigious person so as to give it more weight and authority. There are a number of men called James in the early years of Christianity, the most famous being the “brother of the Lord” (could be an actual brother of just a close relative). But the contents of the book seem to be from and for the Jewish community of the Diaspora, i.e. those living away from their ethnic homeland. The image of desert which we had in the first reading is replaced by that of farming. But the overall message is appropriate for us during advent: we must be patient but while waiting must be improving the way we live, particularly in our relationships with each other.

The gospel reading begins a new attitude in Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus (chapter 11:2-11). The public life of Jesus has been progressing successfully and miracles have been performed, but now begins a more questioning and antagonistic phase of Jesus’ life. To introduce this, John the Baptist who still has some disciples though he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas, sends his disciples, with whom he still has contact, to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. John has preached that a greater one than himself is coming and he has baptised Jesus but the revelation at that time from God saying “This is my beloved son” doesn’t seem to have registered with John according to Matthew’s gospel. In addition, in our passage Jesus doesn’t exactly reply with a straightforward acceptance of the title Messiah (the Hebrew for the Greek word Christ); it is likely that Matthew wants to leave this definite recognition for Peter, whom Matthew sees as the leader of the early Christian community. So instead Jesus says, look at the evidence of the miracles you have witnessed. The list of miracles is drawn from the Old Testament (Isaiah 29:18, 61:1 and others) but mostly from the passage we had in our first reading. Then Jesus speaks about the Baptist; when crowds went out into the desert to hear him, they didn’t find a fickle person changing his attitude according to outside pressure like a reed in the wind; and they didn’t find someone elated by the popularity they had like any court official in fine clothes. But they looked for and found a prophet – and Matthew now uses the passage used of John at the beginning of Mark’s gospel – more than a prophet, the one spoken of as my messenger making a way ahead (a quote related to Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1)