2nd Sunday C

The background situation to the first reading is really the same as that for last week’s, and the message is again an encouraging one.  But there is a distinctive and interesting element.  As happens today for a newborn baby in many cultures, the selection of the name is done thoughtfully in order to express something of the parents’ hopes for the child.  But sometimes in later life a different name comes to a person and for different reasons.  At school a child may get a regularly used nickname to describe something of the character, hopefully but sadly not always, a positive notion welcomed by the recipient.  Sometimes even an adult may change name to express something of which they are proud – such as an actor or other public figure.  You may well know that in the gospels we are told that Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter, a word that meant rock, because he was to be a foundation stone of the early church; and in the Old Testament, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he is chosen by God.  In our reading, female names play an important role; they are applied to the people and the land; the name will be changed from a bad one to a very special one (from Azubah meaning forsaken, to Hephzibah meaning my delight, and the land from Desolate to Espoused).  The passage goes on to suggest that God will marry the renewed and delightful bride, this is a remarkable image of the relationship of God to us – worth singing a new song about (Psalm 96).

In the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (12: 4-11), he writes about the many and wonderful spiritual gifts that the people in the church there have.  I think there may have been some ill-feeling; some claiming or clearly thinking that their particular talent was superior to that of others.  But at the start and at the end of the passage read today, Paul emphasizes the unity that there should be because all the gifts are from the same Spirit, the one God – so there should be no disharmony among them. Paul lists nine gifts here, but the Catholic Church has in the past taught that we Christians have seven special spiritual gifts.

The Gospel may well have been chosen because after the celebrations of the birth and baptism of Jesus, he begins his public ministry, and this miracle at Cana is presented in John’s gospel as the first of his signs.  But most of the content of John’s gospel carries within it a deeper meaning.  It is because of this that many anomalies appear if it is read at surface level; for example in this account it says at the end that Jesus revealed his glory and yet as far as the story tells us, only the servants knew that what was being drunk had moments before been water.   The early Christian recipients of the gospel might see in the ceremonial water jars and in the wine a reference to the replacement  of  Jewish religious rituals with the Christian Eucharistic celebration.  A marriage relationship was used to explain the love of God for his chosen ones, as in the first reading.  There is more to it than just this however, and you might examine some further depths of meaning here  or elsewhere on the world wide

The Baptism of the Lord

The Readings

The way that humans understand their role in the world varies; and the understanding that religious people have of the relationship between God and them is never the same and sometimes develops.  In the lead-up to Christmas we have had many passages in which the Jews expressed their hopes and expectations of God; they thought of ideal leaders, of being gloriously successful and of leading the rest of humanity.  But now we hear of other trends that they were developing, based on their experiences of bad times, of disappointments and especially of being away from what they thought of as their God-given homeland.  Tentatively there arises the thought of a subservient role for themselves, even of suffering for the benefit of others.  In part of the book of Isaiah from the time of the Exile in Babylon, there are four poems about a servant of the Lord and what he will do.  The reading for today is part of the first of these.  It is never clear who the servant is meant to be; it could be an individual saintly person, one of the prophets or all the chosen people as a group; but Christians have always seen Jesus as the one referred to in these poems; that is why this particular passage is chosen for us today.  It speaks of justice for all, of gentle caring for the weakest and of miracles for those with various ills; a servant who is a promise for them and a light for all.  The psalm with which we respond to the reading, is about the thunderous rain and lightning that is both a hardship and a blessing for this agricultural people; it is called the voice of God and it is a revelation of the glory of God and peace but also hardship for His people.

We know that Peter spent a good bit of time with Jesus, and though he got to know him, no one could ever grasp the full impact He was to have.  Eventually Peter learnt to see Jesus as the Son of God who shows us God’s universal love and forgiveness.  After the resurrection, Peter worked at spreading this good news (the gospel) to others.  Luke in the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early growth of this message as Christianity; he writes how Peter began to accept that God no longer required the rules of his Jewish upbringing, for God loves all people as much as they will let Him.  In our reading from Acts Luke tells us of Peter preaching about this new insight, when he visited Cornelius whose household was not Jewish.  Jesus after His baptism began to show the world that God loves all people who show to Him and to others due respect – respect is perhaps a better word than the ‘fear’ in our translation.  There was a practice in the Near East that you lowered your face when meeting  important people and if they wanted to check who you were they lifted your bowed head to see your face; Peter’s opening words literally say, God does not (to check who they are) lift the face of anyone (προσωπολημπτης); translated as “shows no partiality”; God loves us whoever we are!  Christians have not always grasped this but it was reaffirmed in the Vatican II Council’s Document on The Church para 9:“At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right.” Quoting from our reading today.

For the Gospel we have Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by John.  All four gospels tell this story but not all in the same way.  For Mark this is the start of the Gospel, of the public ministry of Jesus; as He comes up our of the water a voice from heaven (God) tells Jesus He is His Son, on whom the Spirit comes down in the way a dove flies down to land.  In Luke the account is much the same, except the Spirit actually takes on the bodily form of a dove.  But Matthew reverts to Mark’s way of putting it; yet Matthew wants to make it quite clear that Jesus is superior to the Baptist and so has John’s hesitancy to baptise Jesus; for Jesus is like other people except for sin.  The baptism John preached, just like ours, was a symbol of starting a new way of life.  For Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the reader already knows that Jesus is the Son of God, but up until this point Jesus has not shown this publicly; but now it is announced and the voice from heaven is addressed to all bystanders: “Behold, my beloved Son!”

Epiphany

Isaiah chapter 60, verses 1-6 is the beginning of a poem that is probably from the time when the exiled Jews had just returned to find their homeland and their city in a sorry state of abandonment.  The Jews were the chosen people of God.  They generally thought that being chosen meant being blest with superiority, prosperity and security from their enemies and at times their history could give this impression.  But at the time of this poem, they had been captured and taken into exile by their enemies, their city of Jerusalem left to deteriorate and the grand Temple building was dilapidated.  This exile was seen as punishment from God for their abandonment of His laws and their association with other gods.  The prophet in the poem still has faith in God.  He tells them to pull themselves up and share his vision for the future – their grandeur restored and, surprisingly, the surrounding nations coming to support and even join them; so the vision is part of what they would want but perhaps disappointing that their God would be shared by foreigners (though they imagined they would be the top nation).

In Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 2 to 6 passim, we read of a vision different from the Old Testament view; a vision of the New Testament times.  It is a mystery, but it does include an openness to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, who now share the benefits of Christ and of being chosen; they are heirs now equally with the Jews and in fact there are more Gentile converts than Jewish ones.  But the openness to the inclusion of theses ‘pagans’ was a particular insight of Paul who differed from even Peter at times on this issue.  It makes one think of how Roman Catholics used to think they were the only proper Christians, and how Christians still often think of other faiths and atheists although they too usually have a vision of what is a good life and a hope for some better future.

The Gospel from Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-12, is part of what people know as the Christmas story. It was written at a time when a majority of the Christians seemed to be Gentiles rather than from the Jewish community and it has many allusions to the Jewish Scriptures.  Certainly in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life the Jews, especially their leaders, were antagonistic towards Him.  Matthew recalls many incidents from what we call the Old Testament, like the warning dreams of Joseph, the flight into Egypt (Genesis 42) when his brothers were suffering from poor crops, the threat of the Pharaoh to the baby Moses (Exodus 1) and more.  This story of Matthew’s also introduces the life of Jesus who showed concern for non-Jews like the Centurion and the Canaanite woman, who seemed to be welcomed at first by the Jews but at His trial the Leaders were against Him and even Peter denied knowing Him.  The star might draw on the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24 (see here), but astronomical phenomena were thought to accompany the birth of kings and emperors.  Is this pattern of betrayal and of the unexpected still the way things are in the world since Christ?.

Feast of Holy Family

There are alternatives for the first reading, This commentary is on Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14.  The Wisdom of (ben) Sirach is sometimes called Ecclesiaticus or even the Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach; it is what might be called a deutero-canonical book because its status as part of the canon (or official collection) of Scripture was not recognised by Jews resident in Israel; Protestant Bibles follow a shorter collection of the Old Testament; though Sirach was used by Jewish scholars and is included in the early Greek version of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint) and is in Catholic bibles.  A lot of the wisdom in this book is about good relationships within families, society and between people in general. The section we have today is a good illustration of this.  The nature of the society from which this came is indicated by the absence of any reference to daughters.  We should, however, when we apply this reading to ourselves, include in our thinking all members of families as well as single people.

Another possibly first reading is based on 1 Samuel 1:20-28 (omitting verse 23).  This book is classified as a history, but like nearly all interesting history writing and also because it is part of sacred Scripture, its main aim is not to recount mere matter-of-fact details but to say something about us humans and in this case our relationship with God.  Its beginning aims to introduce the person of Samuel as a chosen one of God, a dynamic leader during troubled times and a prophetic voice of God to the people.  His birth is made to relate to that of Abraham’s son Isaac born to Sarah (when she was too old), and to Manoah’s son, Samson, when his wife was barren but visited by an angel (Judges 13).  Hannah, one of the important Elkanah’s wives had a lowly place because she was barren, but prayed to the Lord and became pregnant with Samuel.  God can do miraculous deeds!  This story so impressed Luke the evangelist that he tells of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus with these stories in mind; and he even has Mary sing a song (the Magnificat) similar to that which Hannah sang (1 Samuel 2) after she became pregnant.

The second reading is from 1 John which is the first of three short letters to Christians in the tradition of John’s Gospel; it seems to be written by one who has an oversight of a number of Christian communities, and that there may have been two groups who interpreted things differently.  The writer is trying to encourage faithfulness to the early teaching and to the tradition that goes back to Christ himself.  Because people were beginning to express the message of Jesus in terminology not restricted to a Jewish context, there appears some development in the very teaching itself.  It seems that the ‘elder’ writing the letter was upbraiding those whom, he thinks, have taken this development too far, though in exactly what way is not clear.  But in the section we read today (Chapter 3 verses 1-2, 21-24), the emphasis is on the great confidence that Christians can have as children of God through their relationship with Christ and His Spirit.  Since they live with this new life what they ask will be in accord with the will of God and so they can be sure that their prayers will be answered.  And if this is fantastic, the future coming of Christ will be even more incomprehensibly wonderful.

The gospel is the story which we call the ‘Finding in the Temple’ ( Lk 2:41-52) is both delightful and surprising.  It is grouped within what we generally call the infancy narratives but is about growing up.  It moves from Jesus with his parents doing what a devout Jewish family would do, through the account of him amazing the Rabbis in the very heart of their religion, then causing anxiety to Mary and Joseph which highlights their wondering who he is and what his life is about, and then the story is about him claiming God is his father, finishing with Him returning to a life back home to grow and mature further.  The passage before our reading ends saying how Jesus grew bodily, intellectually and spiritually; and this may suggest what the passage we read might mean to us and what Luke the ‘church historian’ was trying to tell the early church, for the passage ends with the same notion of his growth.  Jesus, practising his religion, travels to the heart of it, listens to and asks questions of its learned teachers, seems lost even to those who love him, but after a spiritually dark period (“three days”) is found and remains to grow further into maturity.  Is this not like an outline of the gospel?  In Jesus’ life He moves on after baptism, teaching and doing good and gently challenging the way things are; but His message is enigmatic and remote to his followers until after the end of his life when he rises after three days and then has a new presence on earth, in the nascent church, which begins to grow in numbers, in spiritual strength and in favour with God – and is still growing.  And for the history of the church, still in our present time, is not this the pattern of its difficult growth towards the completed kingdom of God?  And how does this pattern match our own lives and our own development each of us in our own situation?

4th Advent Sunday Cycle C

Although the prophet Micah operated at the time of Isaiah and others in the 8th century BC, some of the material reads as though it is from a later time – either as addition or alteration – and there are similarities between his time and that of the exile in the 6th century.  The reading we have is part of a prophecy preceded by others of a similar format, namely the present time of disasters to be followed by a much better situation.  But our reading has only the upbeat part, the one verse before is about the bad times.  There is promise of a new ruler to come; one who will be like the ideal king David, who was the most unlikely choice and the youngest in the family.  The new ‘ruler’ (not the same word as for the disappointing kings) will be from David’s lineage and even from his insignificant town of Bethlehem.  At that time the northern kingdom of Israel had broken away from the jurisdiction of the southern king in Jerusalem, and in the passage they are probably what the ‘rest of the kingdom’ (the remnant) refers to, whom the new ruler will restore to the whole.  The pregnant young maiden referred to who will produce the new ruler, may be the nation personified as (daughter of) Jerusalem, or the unknown girl in the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.  This new ruler will deservedly take on the image of shepherd, so often used of kings for their attitude to the people – or even of God as the psalm of David sings – “the Lord is my shepherd…” in psalm 23.   It will be the Lord who will support this new ruler and his reign, we naturally apply this to the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

In the reading from Hebrews, the writer is interpreting verses 6 – 8 of Psalm 40, to make a point about the unwanted Temple sacrifices and the unique achievements for us of Jesus who lived his whole life for others – for us and for God (the Father).  It is clear that this is a quite different order of sacrifice when the connotation of the word ‘body’ is realised to be the whole of human life from birth to its completion; Jesus’ whole life in accord with the will of God is portrayed in the gospels; there it is seen by others as a radical stance, with challenging words and actions so much so that the authorities, both secular and religious, brought it to an end with his execution on the cross.  It is the start of this life that we celebrate at Christmas.

The gospel is what we call the Visitation from Luke’s Gospel; Mary has just responded to the message from God that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus, saying “Be it done to me according to your word.”  Luke is not writing history or a biography of Jesus, nor is he writing a delightful fable that is untrue; he is writing to tell an important truth about Jesus who is the Son of God, and as part of the New Testament his writing is the Word of God to us.  It is a delightful tale about a young woman who has the life of Christ in her and therefore whose main concern is to visit her cousin who is pregnant – to help her and to tell her of her own news; it is a lesson for us who try to live good Christian lives with concern for others; but it goes on to make the point that Jesus is way more important than the Baptist, – a necessary message to the early Christians who could easily favour the dramatic preaching and style of the extravert Baptist rather than the selfless and generally forgiving nature of the humble Christ.

3rd Advent Sunday Cycle C

The first reading is from the minor prophet Zephaniah.  This relatively short book records material mostly from the 7th century BC.  At that time the peoples’ faithfulness to the covenant and their moral living was deplorably low, so that the prophecies are mostly of doom and disaster.  But added onto the end of these is the message we read today of great joy.  It often seems to be the case with a section of preaching against the low level of faith and practice of the Jews that in the books of the prophets  there is added an upbeat message to bring a section to an end.  Whether this is a later addition or not it carries a truth about God’s dealings with creation and especially with human beings.  So we have this day the delightful poem, or song, addressed to the daughter of Zion, the city of Jerusalem, which is a personification for the people of Israel, and this use of ‘daughter’ could almost make it look like the successful arrangement of a marriage between them and God.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians Chapter 4, verses 4-7 is part of a letter that Paul wrote to them after receiving a gift from them (most likely of money) brought to Paul in prison by Epaphroditus.  It expresses great thanks to his friends and also words of encouragement – for he and they both think that it will not be long before the end of this era and the second coming of Jesus to claim His own for His heavenly kingdom.  If you started reading from the beginning of the chapter you would read of some internal arguments going on in the community, because it is clearly part of a different letter from Paul to them at a different time.  Altogether there may well be parts of three letters from Paul to them in what we have in our Bible as the letter of Paul to the Philippians.  But the joy of today’s reading is appropriate for this time of the year that we Christians celebrate nowadays.

 The gospel reading from Luke, follows that of last week.  John the Baptist has made quite an impression by his radical character and style of life in the desert, and his call to all Jews to change their attitude to life (to ‘repent’).  Here, he is asked what the details of this might be by different groups; it’s different for the rich and well-off, the tax-collectors and the soldiers; what would be said to us if we asked?  All four gospels have much the same record of  John’s preaching, especially the relationship of himself to Jesus – he is insignificant compared with the true Messiah he foreshadows.  Washing (which is what baptism is) is used symbolically in other religions as well Judaism and now Christianity, but here it is in their river Jordan, which in their history was the crossing they made from the eastern desert into the promised land and now is a symbol for changing the way of life for the better.  But the symbolism of Christian baptism is described here as more like the winnowing separation in the wind (i.e. the spirit) removing the chaff from the wheat grain as well as the purification that comes from fire.

2nd Advent Sunday Cycle C

The first reading is from the book of Baruch which is not part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible but is included in the Greek Bible originally used by Greek speaking Jews in the Diaspora; Catholics have books from this source in their Bibles under the heading Deuterocanonical books, but many other Christians have bibles without these extra books.  The Greek version of the Bible was made about 200 BC in Alexandria in Egypt which had a large Jewish population and was a great centre of learning at that time.  The first reading appears to be about the city of Jerusalem, but it is the idea of ‘Jerusalem’ as the mother of the Jewish people.  So the reading sounds, at one level, as though it is from a time when the Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for about a generation, and obviously were feeling downcast – you may remember the song by Boney M, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ based on psalm 137 in which the people bemoan their lot; the expectation is announced that God will bring them back in triumph.  And yet this passage could equally well have meaning for a later date when the city or the people were further distressed due to domination by the Greek empire, then it would have a similar meaning, or perhaps in Roman times under the oppression of those claiming the one and only god – and later especially Christianity; the upbeat theme is similar to the well-know passage from Isaiah (Chapter 40:1-5) and the classical presentation of it in Handel’s Messiah, a passage also quoted in the gospel; readers today will be able to put their own interpretation on the passage to match their present circumstances, taking it as a sign of hope in whatever difficult times.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians actually looks like a combination of extracts from three separate letters to them.  In the passage we read today (Philippians 1:4-11 passim), Paul is writing from prison in Ephesus, where he was being held quite restrictedly.  And yet he would have needed access to someone who could write for him since his Greek and Jewish education would not have taught him to write very well and we know he used secretaries for others of his letters.  Also it seems that Epaphroditus had visited him and brought gifts from Philippi.  There was a very active house Church in Philippi that was hosted by Lydia who had been among the small Jewish group  that Paul preached to at their meeting place on the fringe of the town.  At this early stage of his ministry, Paul and all the Christians felt that the end was near and Christ would shortly come again.  This is an upbeat tone applauding their faithfulness and encouraging their continuance and preparation till the End should come.

 By the time of the writing of the gospel of Luke, the delay of the ‘Second Coming’ was accepted and hence the view that Christians just have to work on following the way of Christ to the best of their ability.  So the passage we have today makes three points.  Firstly, it sets the coming of Christ on the stage of history, by following the way history was written in those days –  dating according to the year of the Emperor’s rule; some of Luke’s information in this section doesn’t quite square with what we know of the history of the time from other sources, but the point he tries to make is clear: Christ came at a particular time into our world and this was significant for the great Roman empire as well of for the local Jewish people.  Secondly, the message of John the Baptist prepared for the coming, but is basically relevant also to all who want to be good Christians: it is a message of conversion, of starting to leave old ways behind and to change one’s attitude to life; this is the meaning of the word translated as ‘repent.’   Thirdly, in the words of Isaiah, there is the message to prepare, in quite a radical way, for the coming of Christ.