In the first reading (Jer 17:5-8) we have a very straightforward message which applies to our time as much as to Jeremiah’s. This passage is in the form of a typical wise message which is also found in some psalms (including the responsorial psalm for today). We must remember that the way the writings attributed to Jeremiah came together was not that he wrote them, but that some of the remembered preachings of his were later recorded and only eventually added to and structured as we have them today. There is an early Greek verion of the OT called the Septuagint which in places has slightly different texts. Indeed the main force of our reading is also found in the ancient writings recorded of the Egyptian wise man, Amenemope (see here).
The second readig is from 1 Cor 15:12 onwards omitting verses 13-15. There was no real certainty throughout the OT that there was any life after death (perhaps this is why some saintly charaters were attributed very long lives). And it seems from our reading that even some Christians were a little uncertain about this, despite stories of Jesus appearing to people after His death. It is for this reason that Paul has this clear message in his letter here. It would have also been a comfort in the early church where Christians in some contexts were being put to death for their beliefs. It is now a comfort to usthat just as with Jesus, so also when someone dies, therie lif is not some much ended as brought to completion – fulfilled,
The gospel is from Luke 6:20-26 preseded by verses 17,18a (“He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases“). This introduces what we now call the beatitudes – each starting with the word “happy,” followed by what we might call “woes” now translated as “alas for you who…” This is an uplifting message for those who need cheering up or just re-assuring. but also a warning for those who see themselves as well-off in worldly things.
The first reading (Isaiah 6:1-8)pictures Isaiah in the Temple (about 700 years BC). Either he has a vision, or the singing and smoke-filled dim atmosphere heightens his prayerful state and he feels the call from God to be a prophet – or this is a developed anecdote retold by his followers and eventually recorded. It is from this account that we have our chant of “Holy, holy, holy …” The presence of God in the Temple was signified by an empty slab between the huge statues of the seraphim (angels). Isaiah, feeling this presence, inevitably becomes aware of his unworthiness and that of the people to which he belongs. But God purifies from sin and Isaiah is then bold enough to accept the task that he feels called upon to undertake, in the words which we have adopted for one of our hymns “Here I am Lord,” a common response to God in the Old Testament, classically in the story of the call of Samuel.
In the second reading (1 Cor 15:1-11) Paul is gently reminding his readers of the central beliefs that he taught them originally, and chiefly that of the resurrection of Jesus. The verses following our reading seem to make it clear that some of them didn’t really accept this doctrine. It is likely that they had the notion that the body was quite separate from the soul and that it was of little value relative to it. Later in the Church there would often occur heresies that had this Manichean tendency; it is like being quite different on Sundays from how one is for the rest of the week, or like separating the secular from the religious in our lives, or even like imagining one can love one’s neighbour without doing anything about it. Clearly, the Resurrection shows us that this is not the way Christians should think or act. Part of the text of our reading still influences the creed that we say: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
After the visit to Nazareth which we read over the last two Sundays, Luke comes then to the place in his gospel where he recounts the calling of the first fishermen (Luke 5:1-11); he chose to elaborate what he read in Mark, and precedes it with Jesus preaching from Simon’s boat and with the story of the miraculous catch of fish similar to a story which is told in John 21, where also we hear of Peter, after denying Jesus at the time of His arrest, being made the figurative shepherd of the early church. Luke also wants to make this point about Simon Peter and ends with the figurative phrase about becoming “fishers of men.” At the time Luke is writing, there has been an expansion of the followers of Jesus and a need for some structure among the leaders and followers; the miraculous catch of fish could be taken as a figurative tale of this expansion.
The first reading with an introduction tells of God’s announcement to the prophet that his destiny has always been to speak out on behalf of God. But he is somewhat of a country dweller unused to the city and the high life. In addition the traditions of his tribe are those of the northern kingdom, called Israel at this time (the seventh century BC), whereas Jerusalem and the kingdom called Judah, has a different approach to their religious history. But God still wants him to be bold enough to speak out even against the royalty at this time of particular threat from the Babylonians on the northern boarder, as well as against the religious leaders and the ordinary people of the land. God says that He will strengthen and protect him in the difficult task for which he quite naturally feels scared and inadequate.
In the reading from I Corinthians we have the beautiful literary gem from Paul about the importance and glory of the virtue of love. A passage with which many people will be familiar because some of its phrases have great popularity. I think Paul must have composed it almost as a poem even before he decided to include it in this letter, though we should not listen to it just as delightful prose and wonderful ideas. Rather we should see how each of its gems might say something to us and to our attitude to ourselves and the way we live out our lives – do we just speak hollow but loud words, are we patient with ourselves and others, do we seek our own interests all the time? As our lives progress it is selfless and real love that we should be developing as our lives progress, though we can only see things vaguely in this life.
The reading from Luke is the second part of last week’s tale about Jesus reading in the synagogue in Nazareth from the scroll of Isaiah – the passage not quite as the text we have in our bibles. Today’s gospel takes up the story after this. Jesus was claiming for himself an authority over the meaning of the text and applying it to himself as God’s chosen one who would bring the longed-for year of favour. The congregation were initially impressed by his words but soon realised that that raised difficulties for them, for they knew Him as the son of the local carpenter (untrained and insignificant in their small village). And if that wasn’t enough to upset them He went on to explain that in the history of their people, God often seemed to favour the non-Jews – as with Elijah and Elisha’s miracles – their infuriation, according to our reading, led to extreme anger, though Jesus managed to walk away from any danger they posed. We have an interesting reminder of something of the process of gospel writing, for in adapting this story from Mark’s Gospel, Luke has overlooked that he has transposed the story to almost the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, so that the sentence “Do here what you have done in Capernaum” (verse 23b) makes no sense in Luke’s gospel because he hasn’t related any activity of Jesus in Capernaum it would make more sense if it were in Mark’s gospel.
The setting of the first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-10 omitting long lists of names), is back in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the Temple or any synagogue is usable. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah together give us information about the restoration of the physical and political structure, and of the religion of Jerusalem and of the whole of Judah. Today we hear of Ezra the great religious leader who brought the people back to respect the Law of God. He solemnly reads from the scroll of the Law; the people worship the Lord present in the words of the Bible; they listen and it is interpreted to them. The Bible is a deep and ancient piece of literature as well as being the Word of God Who remains a mystery to all; some interpretation is needed because of the time and culture difference between that of the original and of the time of its reading; it is also necessary in order to grasp how it might apply to the current situation – the same might be said about this reading and us today; what will a preacher say, what does the Law of God mean for us in our time and situation?
In the second reading (1 Cor 12:12-27 verses 15-26 might be left out) we hear of Paul’s image of the church as a body; whatever the word might mean today, at that time and in their culture it is more likely that the ‘body’ is the way the reality of the whole person is present in the world and to others; the body of the community of believers has many parts seemingly quite diverse, but they make up one presence of Christ; present in us, in our particular church and in the worldwide Church. We each have our part to play in maintaining and developing this presence of Christ in our world. This is different from His presence in the sacred words of the Bible, recognised by the hearers in the first reading though the Word of God in the Scriptures plays an important role in our developing faith.
In the gospel passage for today, we jump awkwardly from the stylised introductory verses (chapter 1 verses 1- 4) to beyond the infancy narratives, the baptism and the temptations to (chapter 4 verses 14-21). In the introduction Luke indicates that after research, he has a plan for his writing to highlight what he thinks is the true message of the Good News. We hear that Jesus in the synagogue of his home town reads from the scroll of the Prophet, Isaiah (61:1f), and amazes the people by saying: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is announcing the year of favour. It is noticeable that in Luke’s the quotation is from the LXX (the Greek Septuagint version of the Bibe), with the use of ‘the blind’ where the Hebrew Masoretic Text has ‘the prisoners,’ and (according to some manuscripts) with ‘he opened’ rather than the Hebrew original’s ‘he unrolled’ the book. Also in Luke’s text a line from Is 58:6 is included in the quotation and the last two poetically joined lines at the end of that passage in Isaiah 61 are missed out, namely “and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.” Because elsewhere Luke is generally very accurate in quoting the LXX, it may be that this part of the story about Nazareth is taken by him from a previous piece of writing or from oral tradition. Because the section read today is not the whole story (we shall hear the rest of it next week), the significance of what we hear today is different from what it would otherwise be. Here, his preaching in the synagogue must be taken as an upbeat affirmation of the start of a new era for us, an era of favour with God, which will elevate us and bring us release, freedom and renewed vision.
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 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!”
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?.