Category Archives: This week

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.

1st Advent Sunday Cycle C

The first Reading is from the Book of Jeremiah in the Jewish Bible which Christians call the Old Testament.  However the passage (chapter 33:14-16) is actually not found in the Greek version of the Bible (known as the Septuagint often written as LXX) which was probably based on an earlier edition of the Book of Jeremiah and it is mostly the same wording as Jeremiah 23:5f.  Although Jeremiah operated in the 7th century BC, this bit was added in the following century when the Jews had practically lost their land to the Babylonians and needed an upbeat message of hope, grounded, as always, on the belief in the faithfulness of God to His original promises to them.  They referred to this quality of God as His righteousness.  So the message of the prophet was that there will be a king, a branch of this royal House of David, who will be righteous and who will rightly be called ‘the Lord is my integrity,’  words which in Hebrew are the name Zedekiah, the name of a king who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 24:19ff).

The Second reading is part of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 3:12 to 4:2) after hearing from his friend Timothy that the Christians there were doing all right.  He had establish the church there particularly among the underprivileged, and it was they who smuggled him out hastily when the authorities became suspicious of his rapid and sizeable success.  So with good news from Timothy he is able to write encouragingly to them.  These early Christians were expecting the second coming of Christ at any moment and so this was both a reason for joy and for encouragement in good living according to the will and teachings of Jesus, which Paul had originally conveyed to them.

The gospel from which we generally read in this third year of the cycle of three (it is part of the Common Lectionary which many Christian denominations use) is from Luke.  It is a passage (chapter 21:25-36 passim) which Luke has probably seen in Mark’s gospel; Mark was written earlier about the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event which was quite a shattering catastrophe especially for the Jews and Jewish Christians but this disaster gave a newness of life to many Jewish believers. Two decades later, Luke still refers to disasters as a way to encourage the Christians, assuming they are faithful, to expect the Coming of Christ as a cosmically dramatic occasion.  For people in those days, as for us today, the movement of the sun, the moon and the stars was quite predictable, unlike the weather and the political situation, and so the deviation of these from their normal paths was a good symbol for the remarkable future event of the coming of Christ in glory and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.

Solemnity of Christ the King

The first reading is from Daniel, as it was last week.  In chapter 7, we have a description of a dream in which there are four beasts who are, perhaps, representative of the four nations that dominated and suppressed the Jewish state.  Israel thought of itself as the favourite nation of God and so found this oppression particularly devastating.  But in the dream God overcomes the power of these beasts and in their place sets up a human being.  This may well have referred to the hoped for the elevation of Israel.  The meaning is confused and uncertain, however, because in the original language of Daniel the phrase for the human being (who replaces the beasts) is ‘son of man.’  Though it makes some sense in the context of a dream for a human to replace the beasts, when the phrase is translated word for word it can make one think of a particular individual who might save the people – and it is used in this way of Jesus himself both in our reading (Chapter 7:13-14) and according to the other gospels,.  But the extremely interesting notion in our reading, is that it is not just Israel that is favoured by God but absolutely all people; this is a radical vision for the Jewish author in the second century BC – the universality of salvation!

The second reading relates well to the above interpretation of Daniel’s dream.  It is from the book of Revelation sometimes called the Apocalypse in Catholic literature – the two words mean much the same.  The book begins with what we might see on the dust cover of a book nowadays – something like “This book by John is a revelation he had from Jesus, delivered by an angel; its about what will happen in the near future.  It will be a blessing to all who heed its message.”  The text goes on in the manner of a letter (in those days the name of the sender first); something like “John to the seven churches in Asia, grace and peace to you from God and from Jesus…” and there our reading (chapter 1:5-8) begins.  It follows with a prose and then a poetic statement from God the beginning and end of everything (Alpha and Omega); firstly, praise to Jesus whose life (His blood poured out) has saved us all from sin and, secondly, the announcement of his coming to us all; then  a statement that everyone may see His glory, but seeing this can also make one sad.  The author doesn’t say why we mourn, but maybe because He was literally pierced and this reveals the sin and inadequacy of us humans that brought it about.

In the gospel Jesus is questioned about His kingdom by Pilate who is, of course, in charge of the Kingdom of Israel at the time.  The trial(s) of Jesus are represented in the Gospel of John, with a report of the exchanges between Jesus and the High Priest, particularly about his teaching; then He is brought before Pilate and this is extended considerably in this Gospel, where Pilate wants to hand the matter over to the Jews themselves – these verses are found on the very oldest fragment that exists from the New Testament writings (see here).  Taking Jesus back inside, the evangelist puts into words an imagined conversation of Pilate with Jesus, which makes up the reading for today (chapter 18:33-37) about the kingship of Christ – what kind of king is He?  The reign of Jesus is spiritual, over the realm of truth – the verse following our passage has the dramatic words from Pilate “What is Truth?”  This is a most apt reading for this feast day and also climaxes nicely the two previous readings.

33rd Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is from Daniel, a book positioned differently in different versions of the Bible.  It is also unusual in that the earliest versions that we have of it show parts written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and parts in Greek, the language of the Jews in the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel). The word Daniel means ‘God is my judge’ and this neatly sums up the passage we read today.  It is one of those writings sometimes called apocalyptic which were around from the year 200 BC to 200 AD.  Apocalyptic writing is usually full of allegory and dramatic revelation concerning the dealings of God with the world through remarkable events and the activity of angels, it especially relates to the future culmination of world history and God’s final judgment and fulfillment of it.  Probably the influence of the literature of other nations helped the development of the traditional thought of the Jewish people with new ideas.  In today’s reading (12:1-3) we see for the first time in this development two ideas that would play an important part in the belief of Christians; firstly there is a reference to life after death in  the text “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” and secondly the reference to eternal life in the phrase “some shall live forever.”  

The second reading (Hebrews 10:11-14,18) continues the thoughts about the priesthood of Christ.  The  high priests of the Jewish Temple offered sacrifices to God in the belief and expectation that this would destroy/appease  sin.  But it is only the self-sacrifice of an individual that can achieve this sanctity.  Jesus, our example and rescuer, is such a person of total self sacrifice; His role is already completed and He sits at the right hand of God waiting for this success to work itself out in our world by the gradual (and sometimes violent) entanglement with evil.  Our salvation is won, but we have to take it up.  This is the ambiguity and duality of our situation – saved, but still to be worked out in our life here on earth; the enemies must be subdued, we must give ourselves complete in love.

Mark chapter 13 is what is called apocalyptic writing.  It uses sometimes obscure and extravagant language, it is about disasters and evils that we shall encounter; it tells of the imminent and cataclysmic end of the world with the condemnation of evil and the triumph of Christ (the Son of Man) for those who are chosen – it is these for whom it is written.  Since the section we read (Chapter 13:24-32) is about the triumph after the fearful signs of its coming, it is a message of Jesus’ completed work; this work is spelt out in different stages in other gospels as Incarnation, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection followed by Ascension and Exultation at the right hand of God; but here, the sequence of his life is all spoken of as one great victorious event.  Mark sees this as one great action of God in relation to us and our world, completed from God’s standpoint but still to emerge within the turmoil of our lives.  At the time of his writing Christians generally seem to have thought that the End of the world was imminent, but as time goes on this needs re-interpretation.  In the 16th century some Christians realised that these events are in some way ongoing throughout the life of the Church and the well-known Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote:

“Whenever, therefore, we perceive the Church scattered by the wiles of Satan, or torn in pieces by the cruelty of the ungodly, or disturbed by false doctrines, or tossed about by storms, let us learn to turn our eyes to this gathering of the elect. And if it appear to us a thing difficult to be believed, let us call to remembrance the power of the angels, which Christ holds out to us for the express purpose of raising our views above human means. For, though the Church be now tormented by the malice of men, or even broken by the violence of the billows, and miserably torn in pieces, so as to have no stability in the world, yet we ought always to cherish confident hope, because it will not be by human means, but by heavenly power, which will be far superior to every obstacle, that the Lord will gather his Church.”

(Calvin’s Commentaries Ch 33, part 3; tr. by John King)

32nd Sunday B

The first reading (1 Kings 17:10-16) is from a group of books in the Bible called History.  History writing is always subjective and selective, as the author or editor wants to make some point or other; stories and anecdotes are retold to fit in with what the writers or editors think and want to tell their readers.  The story we read today is to illustrate how God deals with people; Elijah His prophet had to announce the drought on the land as God’s response to the peoples’ unfaithfulness, but he himself would be cared for by God through a good-living woman whom God would reward appropriately.  We could speculate what tale is behind this and how it got into this history, and it may help us get something of the message, but more important is what it now says to us.  It is a message about  God’s care for those who are chosen by him and for those who care for their fellow human beings whatever their situation is; and it says something about the ‘natural’ disasters that might be caused by human misuse of earth’s resources.

The second reading (Hebrews 9:24-28) continues the thoughts about the Jewish Temple priesthood and the  role of Christ in our salvation.  It is an exposition of the relationship between the time and activity of Jesus with the period before His coming and the fulfilling of His human life – the difference between the Jewish situation and that of the Christians; the former is like a shadow and the latter is the real thing itself.  So there is just one death to seal the covenant (the agreement between God and people) instead of regular sacrifices by different priests; the old covenant is replaced by the New Testament era.  There is now hope for those who die, of forgiveness and life with God after death, secured by the entry of Jesus as one of us into heaven whence He came. Once the Jewish Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD their religion left behind all this activity of sacrifice and benefitted from the change; but a Christian’s sacrifice should be the way one lives for others – not a death but a way of life!

The third reading (Mark 12:38-44) expresses the Christian teaching about the style of life one should have, and its driving force.  So Mark tells of Jesus speaking against those Scribes who gad about in fine attire, seek the admiration of people and honour amongst others, who take advantage of the defenseless and perform elaborate prayers.  But Mark doesn’t mean this to apply to all Scribes for he has written just before this how Jesus praised one of them (the gospel for the 31st Sunday cycle B).  But Mark’s story is drawing towards the end of Jesus’ life and it is becoming more urgent for certain points to be made. Hence Jesus goes on to praise a demur and self-effacing approach with minimal material value yet expressing a genuine and generous religious attitude; He goes on to contrast the supposedly religious experts and officials with a financially poor yet spiritually devout widow.  This expresses in practical terms what was expressed more theoretically the the reading we had from the letter to the Hebrews.

31st Sunday B

The Readings

The thing that stands out in the first reading is the expression of, almost, a bargain that Moses puts before the people.  He has received the commandments from God and is now trying to encourage the people to keep them.  The bargain is, if you keep the commandments, all will go well with you (secular prosperity}.  This, of course, is the attitude that a loving parent would have towards a child being trained to behave properly; and we do see God as not unlike a parent to us.  Yet because at the time of Moses, and for a long time afterwards, the Hebrew people had no real expectation of a life after death, they saw any benefit from, or reward for, good behaviour was of a material kind (or even of a longer than usual life).

In the second reading the author continues his exposition of the unique priesthood of Jesus in relation to the priests of the Jewish religion during the time of the Temple.  However, Jesus is not separated from sinners, as this translation puts it, but shares our humanity and is that close to us and we are all sinners.  The author is still elaborating on the quotation from Psalm 110 ( or 109) “God has sworn an oath which he never will retract, you are a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” used by him in our last Sunday’s reading.

In the third reading Mark is focussing on the essential message of Jesus that takes the core of the commandments (referred to in the first reading) and highlights it as the essence of what He is teaching – it is an unlimited love of neighbour and of God.  It is this focus away from so many of the lesser rules of the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus that brings him into conflict with the religious authorities and leaders.  

Comment

Nowadays we see the two central commandments as ineluctably interlinked; the way that you love God is by loving your neighbour, and when you love your neighbour you are loving God.  We base this on teachings in the Gospels like the sayings of Jesus, “Whatever you do to one of these…” (Matthew 25:40), and “Where two or three are gathered together…” (Matthew 18:20).  In addition, I think that we now would interpret ‘neighbour’ as any other human being, rather than one who is close to us – to anyone we encounter!  Go and do this now!