31st December 2017
The first reading from Genesis tells us something about the relationship between Abraham and God. The reading is made up of two separate parts of this story (from chapters 15 and 21); you notice that in the first part he is called Abram, meaning great father, and in the second part, Abraham, father of many. Names and name changes were quite significant in that culture; also the inheritance of position and dignity went from father to son, and if there was no son to any of his wives then it went through one of the maidservants’ sons used by the father. Although Abram is childless, God promises that he will have many descendants. Part of the story omitted is where God promises that Abram will have a son by his wife, Sarah, although she appears to be too old – she actually laughed at the thought. But God’s plans come to be, and Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah; God can bring about what seems to us to be impossible, but co-operating with Him will achieve remarkable results.
From the Letter to the Hebrews,(see here scroll down) the second reading tells us something about faith. The writer believes that “to have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 GNB) – to believe in what seems impossible. He illustrates this with reference to various Old Testament characters, like Abel and Noah (whose story of the flood you will be aware of), but he is most interested in Abraham, the great ancestor of the chosen people. We hear reference to that most alarming account of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a human offering, of Abraham going ahead with this until at the last moment an angel stops the process and offers a ram instead (seeGenesis 22). While the writer of Hebrews takes this as an example of faith, the gospel writers might well have some of the story in mind when they tell of the Son of God, led up a hill and sacrificed on the wood of the cross. The way stories are developed and used to make different point, it may well be that this was preserved to illustrate that God does not want human sacrifice (seeDeuteronomy 12:31) which some of the neighbouring tribes practiced and the Israelites might have been tempted to do. But this second reading for us is about accepting what God wants of us and going ahead boldly to do it.
In the gospel (Luke 2:22-40), we read how the parents of Jesus take him at the appropriate time to the temple to be dedicated to God. Notice that this service of presentation and dedication fulfills the Jewish law and at the time of the writing of this story the Christians believe that it is Jesus Who fulfills the Law and that in Him the glory of God is revealed. The words of Simeon are significant for us, as they were for Mary. He is a character between the Old and the New testaments and his words resound with allusions (see here) to the events and words of the prophets in the Jewish Scriptures especially; but they might also be applied to the Christian era when he addresses Mary directly. She too is a character at the junction of the old and the new eras; Simeon refers to the troubles and the blessings in the long history of his people as well as to the sorrow in the life of Mary, but also, perhaps, to the conversion of individuals to Christianity by Baptism as the sink into the water to die to the old self and rise out of it into new life with Jesus dying and rising. But we need to experience this pattern in our own lives and as we try to live more and more as Christians should we will have our own falls and uplifts.