Category Archives: This week

3rd Sun. Ord. Time

The first reading comes from a section of Isaiah which nowadays we associate with Christmas. In Advent (the 4th Sunday of Advent, cycle A) we heard a prophecy of the birth of a young lady’s first child to be called Immanuel (‘God with us’). There are two other children in this section of the book; they have equally meaningful names: Maher Shalal Hash Baz (‘disaster will come upon many’) and She’ar Yashub (‘rescue for some’). All this precedes the section we read today; and after our reading comes the source of the well-known Christmas carol, “Unto us a son is born” (Isaiah 9:6). Our reading refers to Zebulun and Naphtali, which were tribal areas in the break-away northern kingdom. It is in these areas, we read, there have been difficulties but also glorious times (perhaps in the future). Because of the editing of the book of Isaiah over many centuries, it is uncertain what the historical reference is; it could be about 733 BC when the Assyrians invaded that land, but would eventually loose power, or it could be about the 6th century BC exile in Babylon and the eventual return. But for us today, it is clearly linked with the words of the gospel: there may have been darkness but now the light begins to shine!

The second reading gives us an insight into a part of the early church in Corinth. Paul has heard that there are divisions within the community of believers – some of whom might be from the church that meets in the house of a lady called Chloe. Among the believers there seem to be groups who align themselves with different viewpoints associated with different key persons. Some may treat Paul as their inspiration and want to follow his line of teaching and his way of living as a Christian. Some prefer a person called Apollos, who may have had a more intellectual approach to the teaching and they may consider themselves as a result more pleasing to God. Some may see Peter as the key leader of those who follow the way of Jesus and who are keen on not doing away with all that is taught in the Jewish scriptures and all that has been drawn up as rules from them. Others, seeing themselves as superior, want to go back to the simple way of Jesus. Paul thinks they are all wrong to be arguing with each other, to be thinking that they alone have it right and being antagonistic towards others. Paul adds that he doesn’t preach in any particular or sophisticated way, but just wants to communicate the meaning of the cross. What would he say to the world-wide church today of many denominations and so many different attitudes – do we all have it wrong because it is a mystery, a mystery that God’s son should end up crucified as a criminal?

In the gospel we read Matthew’s account of the actual start of Jesus’ public ministry. Before this he has written of the Infancy, of the Baptism and of Jesus’ Temptations. Matthew takes what is one sentence in Mark and imprints it with his own depth of meaning. For example, John the Baptist has be arrested by Herod and Matthew writes that upon hearing this Jesus moves away from his early years in Nazareth. He goes into an area by the sea of Galilee, a place where there are more non-Jews. This reflects the pattern Matthew has written of in his Infancy Narrative: there Joseph takes Jesus away from the threat of Herod, and it is Gentiles (the magi) who are helpful to the holy family. Matthew sees this move as God’s will and a Jewish way of showing this is to see it as fulfilling the (Jewish) scriptures. So, as in the Infancy Narratives, Matthew has a reference to a prophecy being fulfilled – the passage of our first reading (but differing slightly from both the Hebrew and the Greek originals as we know them – perhaps just remembered rather than checked!). So Jesus begins to preach, asking for a change of one’s life, for the influence of God (the Kingdom) is beginning with this start of Jesus’ public activity of teaching and healing.

See Jeffs Jottings – A light for all

2nd Sun. Ord. Time

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.  This first reading is the second prophecy/poem about the Servant of the Lord, found in the part of the book of Isaiah put together during the Exile in Babylon. We have just a few of its verses read to us, but selected to make a very significant point: that the chosen servant is to be a light of the nations, so that salvation may reach to everyone – to the ends of the earth. We see this insight that struggled to develop throughout the history of the Jews before Christ, and still had difficulty being grasped in the early church – and perhaps in our church today. The universal love of God is now generally recognised in the teaching of various Christian denominations; but the practice of this love and of its implications is still a difficulty both for some sections of the church and for us individually. Imagine the situation of the Jews in Exile, hit by this message that God actually loves those enemies of theirs, and that they, being a light to the Gentiles, should show this love to them.

About the year 52 AD Paul writes to the Church/congregations in Corinth where he had originally preached.  Though he intends 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.  He had preached the good news to them two years previously and his message was accepted by some Jews and by some Gentiles too. We note that he names his authority as him being an apostle and calls his fellow worker, brother, as Christians used to address each other. Each cluster of Christian believers is called by him Church, the original meaning behind the word is ‘gathering,’ what today we might call a congregation. The members are made holy through Christ, but are called to be holy within the wider community of all who profess the same faith. If this is the challenge they face then they need the final prayer in Paul’s opening greeting: God send you grace and peace! This was just a private letter to the church in Corinth, but it was probably read in other churches as well and hence got preserved and eventually incorporated into the collection of sacred writings seen as the Word of God to all – our New Testament. So we might read these words as addressed to our congregation, challenging us to this demanding but practical holiness – holiness, a word we might well be hesitant about.

In his Gospel John clearly reminds readers 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.  So in the gospel we have part of the account of the encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. There were some early believers who treated the Baptist as though he were more important than Jesus; after all he seemed much more charismatic, dramatic and confident, as well as gathering a lot of attention from all ranks of society. So in this fourth gospel there is emphasis on the inferiority of the Baptist to Jesus; his role was really just to recognise Jesus, to point him out to others and to help his followers to convert from their previous way of living. Jesus has already been baptised by John and is now being pointed out to the crowd. The passage includes the well-known sentence: ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. The Jews before the destruction of the Temple were used to the sacrifice of lambs, and the Passover was a special meal of lamb commemorating the escape from Egyptian slavery centuries earlier. The fourth gospel was finalised quite late in the first century and so this phrase may refer to the Last Supper (probably of lamb) which Jesus had with his disciples and which was re-enacted in some way at early Christian gatherings and still is to this day in our churches in a less realistic way – with just a little bread and a sip of wine. That Last Supper was a symbolic expression of Jesus’ whole life given for the good of others, for the whole of humanity; it was a life shortly to be completed, ending with the crucifixion.

See Jeffs Jottings – Your calling

Jesus’ Baptism

 

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.  We respond to the reading, with parts of Psalm 29 which 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 of 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 he had 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!”

See Jeffs Jottings – Re-commit!

Epiphany

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, so they need a ‘bright star’ to lift their spirits and 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 accept 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. He wrote (in 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 (astrologers) 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 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.

See Jeffs Jottings – A dawning!

Holy Family

The first reading is from the Wisdom of (ben) Sirach which 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 that 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 (called the Septuagint) and it is in all 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 hear 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.

In the second reading is a real call to Christians to play the part that they should be playing in God’s world. That means a whole lot of good attitudes and ones that deliver actions to match: compassion, kindness, humility etc. and perhaps the hardest of all, is to put up with those who bother us and forgive those who offend us. These are needed for the people of Colossae, but also for us, each in one’s own situation. A suitable reading for this celebration of the ideal family life that would be good for us all.

For the gospel we hear the last two of the five fulfillment stories in Matthew’s Infancy Narratives. They depict Jesus as the climax of the journey made by the chosen people from the time of Abraham to the entry into the promised land. Their history is about a ‘descent’ into Egypt firstly by Joseph, but thereafter by the rest them because of food shortage in their own land. Then there is the memorable escape from Egypt led by Moses through a hard and long desert journey eventual gaining their own land. So, Joseph in the New testament in accord with revelations from God’s messenger angel, goes down to Egypt and then later returns to settle in Nazareth – like a Nazarene (one specially dedicated to God). Families all make journeys in location, in the growth of their relationships with each other, and on their way to doing the will of God for them.

See Jeffs Jottings – God’s family

Advent 4 cycle A

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.

See Jeffs Jottings – Patterns

Advent 3 cycle A

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)

 

See Jeffs Jottings – Vagaries