14th Jan 2018
The two Books of Samuel are classified in the Old Testament as History. History written then had the aim of influencing its readers morally, religiously or politically. The information included may have come from ‘historical’ annals, old folk tales and favourite stories which had something to say to all people. Our reading today is such a story; it has a message about how we might pick up on what God is wanting us to do with our lives. It has the homely setting of an old father-like figure and a young boy who related to him as to a grandfather; it has the characteristic pattern of threesome repetition; it is clearly set in a religious context (the Temple) and it has the engaging feature of misunderstanding prior to getting things right. It is an account of God’s call of the prophet Samuel. It is from such accounts that Fr. Daniel L. Schutte, S.J. took the refrain and used it as the chorus when he composed that now well-known hymn about our own renewed commitment to recognise God around us, His call to us and our positive response to it.
The second reading (2nd Reading – 1 Cor 6:13-20 passim) does not seem to fit in well with the other readings for today except that it illustrates the difficulty we might have in discerning exactly what is for us the right thing to do and what we should not be doing. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about a specific problem. His preaching has told these Gentile converts that now they are Christians they are not bound by any laws (Paul has in mind particularly the Jewish Law). He probably spoke most powerfully about this freedom, because he had been a strict Jew himself up until he became a Christian, but also because some of the Jewish converts thought the Gentile Christians ought to be bound by the Jewish laws. But in the morally loose city of Corinth, some of the Gentile Christians might have taken this to include freedom in sexual practices. Paul has to modify his revolutionary teaching; the freedom doesn’t extend to this; it affected the eating of food sacrificed to idols which Jews wouldn’t do, but, Paul thinks that is permissible, since the stomach is just an organ of the body; but our bodies as a whole are ourselves and are the shrine of the Holy Spirit and should not be defiled by inappropriate sexual behaviour. This is a good illustration for us of how the rules we have in our religion are derived from our beliefs about God, about ourselves and about the relationship we have with God which we know through Jesus Christ.
The gospel (John 1:35-42) passage can easily be taken to be a charming and believable narrative about John, Jesus and the first disciples, but in John’s gospel particularly, there are usually deeper meanings within the text. With no infancy narrative in his gospel the first public presentation of Jesus is made in this passage by the Baptist to two of his disciples, with the words used in catholic liturgy announcing communion: “behold the lamb of God!” The reply with a depth of inner meaning uses the word ‘follow’ as to walk behind and also as to be a disciple of. Jesus then asks “what do you want?” the words used by a priest when someone presents to be baptized and a question always challenging us. Notice also the query where Christ is to be found and the welcome “Come and see.” The call of the first disciples in the other gospels is while they are fishing (which they seem to abandon immediately), but here Simon Peter is called by his brother who first followed Christ. This all leaves us with questions about our own relationship with Christ which we need to regularly consider.
7th Jan 2018
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 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 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 is in our second reading!
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
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.
24th December 2017
The first and second Books of Samuel have some of the early history of the chosen people. It is an instructive interpretation of past events from which the reader is expected to learn something of the ways of God with people and how people should respond to Him. In our reading (from 2 Samuel chapter 7), King David is presented as a good king who will become an hoped-for ideal ruler when the people reach their zenith of power. The king has subdued all his enemies (with the help of God) and is now settled in his own house (actually a palace) and is at last safe from surrounding enemies; in this successful situation he wants to build a house (in fact a temple) for God, close to the palace in Jerusalem. Up to this point the ‘house’ of God has been the ark of the covenant kept in a sacred tent and transported to different areas to be close to the people in general. The prophet Nathan thinks it is a good idea to have a temple, but later he gets to understand that this is not what God wants, at least for the time being. Rather, what God wants is for the house (the dynasty) of David and all the people to dwell safely and well in the land that He has given them for themselves; and in the future God will raise up an heir of David’s who will reign over an ideal kingdom. But who, reading this history can grasp how this will in fact turn out? We apply it to the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus nearly a millennium after David, but its completion still needs our co-operation.
The second reading is the last three verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. We don’t have the original of any of the New Testament books, but only manuscripts of a later date. Some of these put these three verses a chapter or so earlier and some have them in both places and I think one omits them altogether. It may be that these verses were not originally by Paul but were added later. But that is by the way; since these verses still have a lot to say. This one sentence tells us that the core message of the Christian teaching is that we are elevated to a higher potential because this is the climax of what was prepared for in the Old Testament (the scriptures). It is God Who enables us to live well as we should, and in accord with the Good News as preached by Paul. Previously, what the Good News was and what God wanted was a mystery, but now it is clear in Jesus Christ. And this is Good News that should spread to all people, including those we think unlikely. You can read more about this here.
In the gospel reading we hear of the annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel. He tells Mary of her role in God’s plan; it is a great favour for her for she is to have a child who will fulfil the longings of God’s people and His promise through the dynasty of David. As David mistook God’s plan for him, so Mary cannot see how this will come about and how God’s plan will come to reality. But the message the angel adds, is that God’s power can achieve what seems impossible to us and is impossible without His help. The Spirit which played such an important part in creation and in the history of the people, will come upon Mary. This power of God is shown in the pregnancy of Mary’s much older cousin Elizabeth with John the Baptist. Mary verbally accepts the word of God and co-operates in His plans for the rest of her life, beginning with caring for her cousin. The thread through these readings applies also to us who read and hear them. How we expect and want things to be, may not be what God has in mind for His overall plan. What God wants of us may surprise us, but He is with us and enables us to fulfill our role and progress the coming of His kingdom, we should respond as Mary did as we prepare to celebrate the gospel events at Christmas.
17th December 2017
The first reading is from Isaiah chapter 61. As Israel’s long history progressed, even from the time of Abraham, leaders kept being chosen and supported by God, and when it came to Kings their appointment was confirmed by anointing. Then when times were difficult for the nation, people began to expect that God would send an anointed one who would bring them to their fullness and their dream of success. The history of the people tells us (Ezra 1:1ff) that their captivity in Babylon ended through the emperor Cyrus, chosen by God to send the people back to their homeland. Our first reading for today comprises two stanzas from a poem in the book of Isaiah from about this time (530 BC). The first could well be the voice of such a chosen liberator, though we might see it as also being appropriate to be expressed by Christ Himself. The word Christ means anointed and the Spirit of God is with the anointed one. This chosen one (whether we think it is Cyrus, or proleptically Christ) has good news to deliver – the word Gospel literally means good news. It is to announce the day everything will be put right, a vindication that is sometimes translated as vengeance (for the Jews would likely have thought of retribution on their enemies). The next stanza that we read is probably the thoughts of Jerusalem personified for the inhabitants of the city and its surrounds; it sings of rejoicing in the restored glory of the building and of their society in themselves and in relation to their enemies. This stanza can remind us that we should rejoice at the things that God has done for us in Christ.
In the second reading Paul write to the Thessalonians from Corinth and has received news from Timothy that the Christians in Thessalonica, which he had to leave hastily, are doing well. He writes to give them some advice and to praise their success. Our reading is almost the end of this letter, dated about 50 AD. Christ wants His followers to be upbeat, to pray for things they want and anyway to always thank God for all His blessings. The community there seems to have quite a few ‘prophets;’ They are people, male or female, who feel moved by the Spirit to make pronouncements and public prayers. Some in the community dislike this activity, but Paul says you need to judge what they say and accept what you know to be right and good and reject the rest. He ends by praying for them – its good for people to know when they are being prayed for! May you be entirely blameless, he prays using the phrase ‘body, soul and spirit.’ Be ready for the advent of Christ, he prays, which the early Christians thought might be quite soon.
The gospel is from John, a Gospel written much later than the other three and which had to address issues that were developing in the church at the time. One of these was an exaggerated adulation of John the Baptist by some supposed Christians. After all John had been a very impressive character, attracting crowds out into the desert to recommit themselves to God in a ceremony of baptism similar to ones for people taking on an entirely new religious belief and practice. In many ways his extravagantly ascetic life and dramatic death at the hands of Herod, were more impressive than the generally compassionate preaching and lifestyle of Jesus. So at the beginning of this Gospel the position of John in Christian belief is clarified in the reading we have today. Positively, John is the one announcing good news as in the other gospels which also quote the passage from Isaiah used in last week’s readings. Here it is quite clear that John is not the one, not the light, but just a servant preparing his way. Even today we can sometimes have an image of our saviour which attracts us, rather than elevates and challenges; we need, perhaps to rethink and recommit ourselves.
3rd December 2017
The first reading comes from a great cry of lament that has a typical pattern for prayer at the time, and which is still found sometimes in our prayers; first of all God is ‘reminded’ of all that He has done and continues, for the benefit of the petitioner – of the relationship that there is between Himself and us; but then it is a cry of desperation, of feeling let down by a God who doesn’t act as we expect – He is giving us grief; followed by a cry for God to come anew. We think of God as our father and redeemer, but can be too confident about this and reliant on God’s love and forgiveness with the consequence that we encounter difficulties, we actually become hardened in our attitude to religion and to God – God gives us a bad time so we shall be stripped of our complacency and realise our utter dependence on Him. To execute this process seems to have been a task given to Isaiah, called to “make the heart of this people heavy!” (Isaiah 6:10). In the reading we hear that God hardens the people’s heart so that they will lament their situation, realise their wickedness, call on God desperately to bring good times upon them, openly admitting their guilt and the weakness of themselves before God like clay in the hands of a potter. Two and a half thousand years ago when this was written people were not so self-willed and individualistic as we might be today, and they would not have had such a caring and gentle view of God, so they thought of Him as actually hardening their hearts – an image that is strange to us. But now and in Advent we have to change our ways and be ready to help and work for our God, who comes like a weak and helpless babe not bursting into our lives with power and might; our image of God is put on its head! It is not so much that He helps us, but mysteriously, we must help Him.
Paul opens this letter to the Corinthians with a paean of praise for the blessings given them by God in Jesus Christ. This is what we sometimes need to hear, because, not only are we generally wanting to please God, but also He is determined to bring to a successful conclusion to the work of creating and redeeming our world. Paul is a well educated and skilful spiritual leader, and this is a most tactful opening address to those whom he needs to correct in a number of ways throughout this letter. The words can apply to us, when he writes that we are not short of any needful spiritual gifts as we prepare for the advent of Christ. God will surely bring a happy fulfilment to His work with us; but we might think, if Paul was writing to us, what reprimand and criticism would he make after this uplifting introduction.
The gospel reading comes at the end of the only long discourse attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel; it is a discourse about the final days before the end, similar to a type of visionary writing of first century alluding to disasters leading up to the day of judgement and followed by a kind of farewell speech expected of important religious leaders. The reading is the concluding exhortation; it is mixed up with allusions to parables that the readers would know, like those inMatthew and Luke about a leader leaving his servants in charge. There is a hint that even if the times seem dark (“at midnight”) they must be ready; for at the time of writing, the Temple has been destroyed and the Romans are becoming suspicious of Christians. At Advent when we are preparing to celebrate the past coming of Jesus with an eye on the final completion of creation, we are reminded to remain faithful and resist the temptation to postpone committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Christ – to Christian living. From the old missal’s Collect prayer for this day comes the phrase ‘Stir Up Sunday’ with its culinary traditions!