Feast of Holy Family

There are alternatives for the first reading, This commentary is on Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14.  The Wisdom of (ben) Sirach 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 a 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 (the Septuagint) and is in 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 have 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.

Another possibly first reading is based on 1 Samuel 1:20-28 (omitting verse 23).  This book is classified as a history, but like nearly all interesting history writing and also because it is part of sacred Scripture, its main aim is not to recount mere matter-of-fact details but to say something about us humans and in this case our relationship with God.  Its beginning aims to introduce the person of Samuel as a chosen one of God, a dynamic leader during troubled times and a prophetic voice of God to the people.  His birth is made to relate to that of Abraham’s son Isaac born to Sarah (when she was too old), and to Manoah’s son, Samson, when his wife was barren but visited by an angel (Judges 13).  Hannah, one of the important Elkanah’s wives had a lowly place because she was barren, but prayed to the Lord and became pregnant with Samuel.  God can do miraculous deeds!  This story so impressed Luke the evangelist that he tells of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus with these stories in mind; and he even has Mary sing a song (the Magnificat) similar to that which Hannah sang (1 Samuel 2) after she became pregnant.

The second reading is from 1 John which is the first of three short letters to Christians in the tradition of John’s Gospel; it seems to be written by one who has an oversight of a number of Christian communities, and that there may have been two groups who interpreted things differently.  The writer is trying to encourage faithfulness to the early teaching and to the tradition that goes back to Christ himself.  Because people were beginning to express the message of Jesus in terminology not restricted to a Jewish context, there appears some development in the very teaching itself.  It seems that the ‘elder’ writing the letter was upbraiding those whom, he thinks, have taken this development too far, though in exactly what way is not clear.  But in the section we read today (Chapter 3 verses 1-2, 21-24), the emphasis is on the great confidence that Christians can have as children of God through their relationship with Christ and His Spirit.  Since they live with this new life what they ask will be in accord with the will of God and so they can be sure that their prayers will be answered.  And if this is fantastic, the future coming of Christ will be even more incomprehensibly wonderful.

The gospel is the story which we call the ‘Finding in the Temple’ ( Lk 2:41-52) is both delightful and surprising.  It is grouped within what we generally call the infancy narratives but is about growing up.  It moves from Jesus with his parents doing what a devout Jewish family would do, through the account of him amazing the Rabbis in the very heart of their religion, then causing anxiety to Mary and Joseph which highlights their wondering who he is and what his life is about, and then the story is about him claiming God is his father, finishing with Him returning to a life back home to grow and mature further.  The passage before our reading ends saying how Jesus grew bodily, intellectually and spiritually; and this may suggest what the passage we read might mean to us and what Luke the ‘church historian’ was trying to tell the early church, for the passage ends with the same notion of his growth.  Jesus, practising his religion, travels to the heart of it, listens to and asks questions of its learned teachers, seems lost even to those who love him, but after a spiritually dark period (“three days”) is found and remains to grow further into maturity.  Is this not like an outline of the gospel?  In Jesus’ life He moves on after baptism, teaching and doing good and gently challenging the way things are; but His message is enigmatic and remote to his followers until after the end of his life when he rises after three days and then has a new presence on earth, in the nascent church, which begins to grow in numbers, in spiritual strength and in favour with God – and is still growing.  And for the history of the church, still in our present time, is not this the pattern of its difficult growth towards the completed kingdom of God?  And how does this pattern match our own lives and our own development each of us in our own situation?

4th Advent Sunday Cycle C

Although the prophet Micah operated at the time of Isaiah and others in the 8th century BC, some of the material reads as though it is from a later time – either as addition or alteration – and there are similarities between his time and that of the exile in the 6th century.  The reading we have is part of a prophecy preceded by others of a similar format, namely the present time of disasters to be followed by a much better situation.  But our reading has only the upbeat part, the one verse before is about the bad times.  There is promise of a new ruler to come; one who will be like the ideal king David, who was the most unlikely choice and the youngest in the family.  The new ‘ruler’ (not the same word as for the disappointing kings) will be from David’s lineage and even from his insignificant town of Bethlehem.  At that time the northern kingdom of Israel had broken away from the jurisdiction of the southern king in Jerusalem, and in the passage they are probably what the ‘rest of the kingdom’ (the remnant) refers to, whom the new ruler will restore to the whole.  The pregnant young maiden referred to who will produce the new ruler, may be the nation personified as (daughter of) Jerusalem, or the unknown girl in the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.  This new ruler will deservedly take on the image of shepherd, so often used of kings for their attitude to the people – or even of God as the psalm of David sings – “the Lord is my shepherd…” in psalm 23.   It will be the Lord who will support this new ruler and his reign, we naturally apply this to the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

In the reading from Hebrews, the writer is interpreting verses 6 – 8 of Psalm 40, to make a point about the unwanted Temple sacrifices and the unique achievements for us of Jesus who lived his whole life for others – for us and for God (the Father).  It is clear that this is a quite different order of sacrifice when the connotation of the word ‘body’ is realised to be the whole of human life from birth to its completion; Jesus’ whole life in accord with the will of God is portrayed in the gospels; there it is seen by others as a radical stance, with challenging words and actions so much so that the authorities, both secular and religious, brought it to an end with his execution on the cross.  It is the start of this life that we celebrate at Christmas.

The gospel is what we call the Visitation from Luke’s Gospel; Mary has just responded to the message from God that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus, saying “Be it done to me according to your word.”  Luke is not writing history or a biography of Jesus, nor is he writing a delightful fable that is untrue; he is writing to tell an important truth about Jesus who is the Son of God, and as part of the New Testament his writing is the Word of God to us.  It is a delightful tale about a young woman who has the life of Christ in her and therefore whose main concern is to visit her cousin who is pregnant – to help her and to tell her of her own news; it is a lesson for us who try to live good Christian lives with concern for others; but it goes on to make the point that Jesus is way more important than the Baptist, – a necessary message to the early Christians who could easily favour the dramatic preaching and style of the extravert Baptist rather than the selfless and generally forgiving nature of the humble Christ.

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)