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Speaking the Word of God with Authority

Capernaum cropped

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – February 1, 2015

At the beginning of Mark’s story of the Son of God, we read of the calling of the first disciples (1:16-20) and the confrontation with evil (1:21-28). The calling, influenced by the compelling calls of the prophets (e.g., Isaiah 6:1-13; Jeremiah 1:14-19), is a model of discipleship. Jesus is not a solitary prophet but one who calls companions “to be with him;” he enters the lives of four people engaged in their ordinary occupations, simply says, “Follow me,” and they immediately leave everything to follow him.

The story of Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue inaugurates the first day of his ministry that consists of exorcisms and healings. The story reflects contemporary Jewish thought that the coming of God’s kingdom would mark the defeat of evil, which is personified in an array of demons and unclean spirits. Jesus’ word is so powerful that people abandon their occupations and follow him, and even demonic powers are powerless before it. Jesus summons people to a change of heart, to take a new look at their lives and put their trust in the good news. This is not simply a story from the past, but one that continues to speak powerfully and prophetically to people today.

On this Fourth Sunday of Ordinary time, both the first reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) and the Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) raise the issue of the authority of those who speak the Word of God. Authentic prophets taught with authority because God put his own words into their mouths. In the first reading, Moses tells the people that God will send a prophet from the line of the Israelites. God commands everyone to listen to this prophet, who we come to recognize as Jesus.

Jesus astonishes the people in the Capernaum synagogue with his teaching and authority. He taught with authority because he is the living Word of God. We are all witnesses to this living Word who is Jesus. We have no authority of our own; we simply proclaim his Word. Each member of the Church, by virtue of baptism and confirmation, has a prophetic role, and echoes the Word of God himself, both by words and example. We must walk our talk!

Two of the most misused and misunderstood words in our day are “prophet” and “prophetic.” In the popular mind, prophets fall into some well-worn stereotypes, always standing outside, protesting the system. They might be dressed poorly, shouting out and embarrassing the polite and the elite! For many such prophets, anger seems to be a signature emotion.

Yet in the Bible, prophecy often looks very different. There were certainly those lone prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist, but more often prophets were fully integrated into the “systems” and “structures” of their times. Think of Jeremiah, who came from the fallen priestly house of Eli; and Ezekiel, Zechariah and Isaiah were also priests and prophets of the court. Prophets appeared in the courts of the kings of Israel. In the moving story of King David, the prophet Nathan rebuked the king for adultery and murder but he was also capable of some rather discrete maneuvering in his efforts to put Solomon on the throne!

Authentic prophets were strident opponents of the status quo. They recognized and felt the injustice that kings and priests and false prophets wanted to whitewash. They shared the groans of the oppressed poor, of widows, orphans and the dispossessed, and articulated those groans in cries of woe. They denounced the system, but denounced a system in which they were often enmeshed. They experienced deeply what was wrong with that system, and did everything they could to bring about change from within the system.

It’s far too easy to denounce from a distance. Gestures of repudiation and condemnation cost so little, and adding the term prophetic may lend an aura of piety, importance and savvy to one’s reputations and works. But they don’t accomplish their goal of bringing about conversion, transformation and renewal.

Prophets in the Bible cannot afford gestures. They are called to speak the word of the Lord from within the court, often wreaking havoc in the process! Authentic prophets spoke the truth face-to-face with power, to powerful men and women whom the prophets knew intimately, frequently from their own position of power. And often, the prophets were in the employ of those whom they challenged!

Finally, a word on our own “prophetic” efforts to bring about change in the Church. I will be forever grateful to the late Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles for having instilled these ideas in my mind and heart years ago. The then Father Dulles said that reformers ought to speak prophetically. This may well be true, provided that the nature of prophecy be correctly understood. Father said that St. Thomas Aquinas made an essential distinction between prophecy as it functioned in the Old Testament and as it functions within the Church. The ancient prophets were sent for two purposes: “To establish the faith and to rectify behavior.” In our day, Father Dulles continued, “the faith is already founded, because the things promised of old have been fulfilled in Christ. But prophecy which has as its goal to rectify behavior neither ceases nor will ever cease.”

How do we speak the Word of God with authority today? How do we use our authority to further the Kingdom of God? How are our words, gestures, messages and lives prophetic today, in the Church and in the world?

[The readings for this Sunday are: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; and Mark 1:21-28]

(Image: “Jesus in Capernaum” by Rodolpho Amoedo)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

The Big Fish, the Great Catch, the Ultimate Commission

St Paul Preaching cropped

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – January 25, 2015

Those with literal minds will question many things about the Jonah story [Jonah 3:1-5, 10]: the great fish, the size and population of this immense city, and the conversion of the Assyrians.

On the other hand, those who really listen to and view this story with ears and eyes of faith will take all of these other factors in stride. What is essential is not the size of God’s sea monsters, nor the distances to be covered within cities, nor the large numbers of those converted.

For people of faith, the rather amazing Jonah story contains a far greater message: Because the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and turned from their evil ways, God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them. No person, place or situation is beyond God’s mercy and healing reach!

It is no wonder, then, that Christianity saw Jonah as a positive figure prefiguring Christ and his universal Gospel message. Through Christ, God approaches his world in a new, decisive way in order to fulfill all the expectations and hopes of the Old Testament.

Jesus to the city

When the disciples in today’s Gospel [Mark 1:14-20] leave their nets and present occupations in order to submit to God’s Kingdom, they model what this turning from and turning toward means. How can we bring the Good News of God and of Jesus to our cities that are often so vast, so impersonal, so busy and filled with noise?

At times do we not often run the other way to the lake and wait for some speedboat or cruise ship to pick us up and take us to a quiet, peaceful place that is much less complicated and less hostile to our message? How can we Christians be the souls of our cities?

We begin by celebrating the Eucharist with devotion and love. We must pray incessantly. We continue to do many hidden, quiet sacrifices each day of our lives with love, peace and joy. We take our baptism seriously and activate the Beatitudes in daily living. We must never give up in living God’s Word and preaching it to others in words and deeds.

Remaining faithful

Whenever I read the story of Jonah, I am reminded of a story I heard in Jerusalem during the four years of my graduate studies in the Holy Land. One day my Muslim neighbors had invited me to meet their Imam. As we sat and sipped tea in the Old City of Jerusaelm, the religious leader of the small mosque near my house spoke about the mercy of Allah.

He recounted a story about a certain Muslim — Youssef ben-al-Husayn — who died in the year 917. Youssef had received from his master the order to preach incessantly. He had however been very misunderstood and ostracized, and the time came when he had no more people who would listen to his words and messages.

One day Youssef entered the mosque to preach and not a soul was present. He was leaving the mosque when an old woman cried out to him: “Youssef, if the people are absent, the Almighty, he is surely present. Even though no one is here, teach the Word of Allah!”

Thus Youssef preached the word for 50 years, whether or not anyone was present to hear it. He didn’t give up because of people’s indifference, cynicism, absence or wickedness. He simply remained faithful to his vocation of preaching the word of Allah.

Youssef ben-al Husayn and Jonah probably experienced a bit of prophetic fatigue in their day. They continued to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. We know what happened because of Jonah’s persistence and fidelity to that word.

I am sure that Jesus must have felt the same way on many occasions. Was anyone really listening to his message? And with Jan. 25 marking the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, how could we not think of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, and his trials and tribulations endured as he preached the Gospel?

In the Acts of the Apostles [18:8-10], Paul arrives in Corinth, and we are told that “many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.” One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”

The Zeal of St. Paul

This great Apostle to the Gentiles causes every Catholic hold up a mirror to his or her life and to ask, “Am I as determined and as energetic about spreading the Catholic faith as St. Paul was?”

Our Catholic faith only grows when we consciously and conscientiously share it with others. Christ will look at each one of us with his merciful eyes at our individual judgment and ask what efforts we made during the course of our lifetime to invite people into communion with Jesus Christ and his Church. In the end, the Lord will ask us: “Did you love me? To whom did you preach the Good News? How many people did you bring with you?”

The Ultimate Commission

What does Jesus Christ demand of us today? Repentance, conversion, a turning away from our own ideas about how God’s Kingdom should operate and a turning toward belief in Christ’s teaching and example about God’s Kingdom that is among us here and now. Our ultimate commission is to preach the word of God in season and out of season.

May the fire that the Holy Spirit poured into the heart of St. Paul of Tarsus, inflame our hearts to be vibrant and effective missionaries of the New Evangelization. May it strengthen us never to give up, especially when it seems like no one is listening any more. For it is precisely at such moments that the Lord will say again to us: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”

[The readings for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20.]

(Image: “St Paul Preaching in Athens” by Raphael)

The Cost of Our Discipleship

Calling of John and Andrew cropped

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – January 18, 2015

Reflecting on today’s readings, especially the call of Samuel and of Andrew and his brother, I remembered something that the German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison in Nazi Germany, that “only by living unreservedly in this life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities … does one become a man and a Christian.” Bonhoeffer experienced what he called so poignantly “the cost of discipleship.”

The Prophet Samuel and Andrew and Simon Peter experienced this cost in their own lives. First let us consider the story of Samuel’s call — a dramatic story exemplifying the dynamics of God’s call, and offering to us a model to follow in our own lives. Eli was old and nearly blind. His sons, who were the priests of the temple, had been unfaithful to God. Their time was nearing an end, so God called Samuel to begin a new era.

Samuel needed help in discerning his call, and Eli’s wisdom and friendship with the young man were necessary so that Samuel could really hear the Lord’s voice. Once Samuel recognized that it was truly the Lord who was calling him, he became the great prophet who would discern God’s will regarding religious, social and political matters for the people.

When we come before the Lord to listen to his Word, our deepest prayer and cry of the heart should be: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” But is it not true that that cry often turns out to be: “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!”

At the recent world Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” then-Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Diocese of Imus in the Philippines (now Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila), made one of the most significant interventions. Cardinal Tagle spoke about the disposition of listening to God’s Word that leads people to true life. He said: “Listening is a serious matter. The Church must form hearers of the Word. But listening is not transmitted only by teaching but more by a milieu of listening.”

Cardinal Tagle proposed three points to develop a disposition of listening:

1. Listening in faith means opening one’s heart to God’s Word, allowing it to penetrate and transform us, and practicing it. It is equivalent to obedience in faith. Formation in listening is integral faith formation.

2. Events in our world show the tragic effects of the lack of listening: conflicts in families, gaps between generations and nations, and violence. People are trapped in a milieu of monologues, inattentiveness, noise, intolerance and self-absorption. The Church can provide a milieu of dialogue, respect, mutuality and self-transcendence.

3. God speaks and the Church, as servant, lends its voice to the Word. But God does not only speak. God also listens, especially to the just, widows, orphans, persecuted, and the poor who have no voice. The Church must learn to listen the way God listens and must lend its voice to the voiceless.

In the Gospel story for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, it is Jesus who takes the initiative or the first step. His question to the disciples is intriguing: “What are you looking for?” (1:38). Far from any simple interrogation, these words are deeply religious and theological questions. “Why” Jesus asks, “are you turning to me for answers?” They ask him, “Teacher, where do you live? Where do you stay?” (verse 38). The verb “live,” “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” “dwell,” “lodge,” occurs 40 times in the Fourth Gospel. It is a verb that expresses concisely John’s theology of the indwelling presence.

The disciples are not only concerned about where Jesus might sleep that night, but they are really asking where he has his life. Jesus responds to them: “Come and see” (verse 39). Two loaded words throughout John’s Gospel — to “come” to Jesus is used to describe faith in him (cf John 5:40; 6:35. 37.45; 7:37). For John, to “see” Jesus with real perception is to believe in him.

The disciples began their discipleship when they went to see where he was staying and “they stayed on with him that day” (John 1:39). They responded to his invitation to believe, discovered what his life was like, and they “stayed on”; they began to live in him, and he in them. After Andrew had grown in his knowledge of who Jesus was, he “found his brother” Peter and “brought him to Jesus (verses 41,42). This whole experience will be fulfilled when the disciples see his glory on the cross.

What can we learn from the call stories in today’s readings? We are never called for our own sake, but for the sake of others. Israel was called by God for the benefit of the godless around it. God calls all Christians for the sake of the world in which we live.

To be called does not require perfection on our behalf, only fidelity and holy listening. Samuel and the prophets of Israel, the fishermen of Galilee and even the tax collectors that Jesus called were certainly not called because of their qualifications or achievements. Paul says that Jesus calls “the foolish,” so that the wise will be shamed. It is a dynamic call that involves a total response on our part. We will never be the same because he has called us, loved us, changed us and made us into his image. Because he has called us, we have no choice but to call others to follow him.

How have you been called away from the routine of your life, away from the frustrations of daily life and work? What new purpose do you find emerging in your life because of the ways that God has called you? Through whom have you encountered the call of the Lord in your life? Have you called anyone to follow the Lord recently?

[The readings for this Sunday are: 1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19; 1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20; and John 1:35-42.]

(Image: “The Calling of Saint John and Saint Andrew” by James Tissot)

The Baptismal Difference

Baptism of Jesus cropped

Baptism of the Lord, Year B – Sunday, January 11, 2014

Christmas has come and gone, and the Magi are now off on the distant horizon, having returned to their native lands by another road. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord seemingly brings an end to the Christmas season, although, in reality, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2 that marks the great conclusion of the Christmas season.

Nonetheless, it is useful to ask ourselves some hard questions today of what we have just experienced in the Nativity celebrations.

A great tragedy of Christmas is that for many, it is a religion of one night, however lovely and shining it may be. The Incarnation of Jesus is reduced to mere sentimentality, tradition or a cultural feast. But Jesus is not a meteor. It is not enough to come to the manger and get stuck there; we must turn from it. And then, accepting what the occupant of the manger means, we must begin to live out that meaning, choosing what may be new directions, challenging previous ways and assumptions, continuing the journey of our life with the knowledge that something has changed. One person has made a huge difference in our life and has literally changed history.

The theme of Christ’s epiphany — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth — reaches its fulfillment in today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The beautiful text from Evening Prayer on the feast of the Epiphany reads: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.” Each event is accompanied by a theophany, by startling evidence of divine intervention: the star, the water into wine, the voice from heaven and the dove. Today we witness the baptism of the Lord, the one into whom we ourselves are baptized.

In today’s Gospel, the appearance of John the Baptist seems to send us back to Advent…to look carefully at the evidence of the Baptizer and of Jesus, and to make some decisions about our lives and our future. Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is the earliest account we have in the Scriptures. The Baptizer’s preaching is both abrasive and attractive. His very opening statement detracts the attention from himself and places it on the one who is coming, the “one mightier than I” [v. 7]. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was attracted to John and he accepted to be baptized because he identified totally with the human condition. He felt our struggle and our need to be washed from the guilt of our sins. Through his own baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus opens the possibility to us of accepting our human condition and of connecting with God the way we were intended to. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Heaven opens above us in the sacrament. The more we live in contact with Jesus in the reality of our baptism, the more heaven will open above us.

While I was studying in Rome, I came across a story from the early Church that is very fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During the third century, Cyprian of Carthage wrote to his friend Donatus: “It’s a bad world, Donatus, in which we live. But right in the middle of it I have discovered a quiet and holy group of people. They are people who have found a happiness that is a thousand times more joyful than all the pleasures of our sinful lives. These people are despised and persecuted, but it doesn’t matter to them. They are Christians, Donatus, and I am one of them.”

As we remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, let us echo Cyprian’s words without fear: “We too are one of them.” Our own baptism invites us to recall the past with gratitude, to accept the future with hope and the present moment with wonder and awe. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are invited to the banquet of the Lord, so lavishly spread out before us. Our sharing in the Eucharist bonds us together with our brothers and sisters who have been immersed into the life of Christ through the waters of baptism. Let us pray that the grace of our own baptism will help us to be light to others and to the world, and give us the strength and courage to make a difference.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 55:1-11; Acts 10:34-38 or 1 John 5:1-9; Matthew 1:7-11]

Nations Will Come to Your Light

Magi cropped

Epiphany of our Lord – Sunday, January 4, 2014

What “stirring” readings we hear in the Epiphany liturgy! Consider the scene from Isaiah’s prophecy (60:1-6). Gentiles come from distant places, attracted by the splendor of Jerusalem, bringing gifts and tenderly carrying the sons and daughters of the Holy City! Though darkness may have surrounded the people, the glory of the Lord allows the light to burst forth and shine like a bright new dawn. What a fitting way to describe what we have just celebrated at Christmas!

Matthew’s Gospel story of the magi [2:1-12] reveals to us the inevitable struggle that God’s manifestation in Christ implies for the world. If we read the story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story. The battle lines are drawn and the forces are being marshaled. A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. Jesus was a threat to Herod and to them: to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.

At home in their distant, foreign lands, the magi had all the comfort of princely living, but something was missing — they were restless and unsatisfied. They were willing to risk everything to find the reality their vision promised. Unlike the poor shepherds, the magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. The shepherds also knew adversity, and it had prepared them to accept the angels’ message. But once they overcame their fright, they simply “crossed over to Bethlehem” to meet the Christ Child.

The magi, on the other hand, had a much more difficult journey to Bethlehem. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes! The magi were not just holy visionaries or whimsical religious figures; they were willing to wager their money, their time and their energy, and perhaps even their lives to seek out someone who would bring true peace.

The magi were not completely lost upon their arrival in Jerusalem — the city did not stop their pilgrimage. In fact, in Jerusalem, they were redirected to Bethlehem. These men of the East, foreigners in every sense of the word, were guided not only by their own wisdom and knowledge of the stars, but were aided by the Hebrew Scriptures that now form the Old Testament. The meaning of this is important — Christ calls all peoples of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, to follow him. We could say that Jerusalem and the Old Testament serve as a new starting point for these Gentile pilgrims on their road to faith in Jesus. The people of the big city, indeed even Herod himself, were instrumental in leading the magi to Christ.

What could this mean for our own pilgrimages to the truth today? More than the obvious fact that the Old Testament must be a central part of our path to Christ, might it not also mean that our own cities, with all of their confusion and ambiguity, might also serve as a starting point for our journey of faith?

At the center of this whole Gospel story of striking contrasts lies a Baby, Jesus of Bethlehem, who is joy. Herod is afraid of this “great joy for all the people.” From Matthew’s Gospel, we do not know what happened to the magi when they returned to their native lands, but we can be sure that they were changed men. They discovered in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem that there is no longer a God of this or that country, nor an oracle uttered in some distant place, but a God and Savior who has become flesh and blood for of all humanity. And the Savior is joy.

In the end, the magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.

Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, bless our hearts and our homes with your peace and humility! When we hear the voices of old kings of death and fear and cynicism, may we have the courage to go our own way … rejoicing, because we, too, have seen and experienced the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I conclude with the words of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), that great Carmelite mystic and lover of the cross, who wrote so beautifully about the Christmas mysteries:

“Those kneeling around the crib are figures of light: the tender innocent children, the trustful shepherds, the humble kings, Stephen, the enthusiastic disciple, and John the apostle of love, all those who have followed the call of the Lord. They are opposed by the night of incomprehensible obstinacy and blindness: the scribes, who know indeed when and where the Savior of the world is to be born, but who will not draw the conclusion: “Let us go to Bethlehem.” King Herod, who would kill the Lord of Life. Ways part before the Child in the manger … “

Some will choose the path of life, others will choose the path of death. Today as we move away from the manger of our newborn King and Lord, let us recommit ourselves to the cause of life that is the heart and the joy of Christmas.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12.]

(Image: “Adoration of the Magi” by Corrado Giaquinto)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

A Feast Rich in Names, Meaning and Mission

Madonna and Child cropped

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God – Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Jewish New Year

The Jewish Feast of Rosh Hashanah, meaning literally the “beginning of the year,” occurs on the first of the Hebrew month Tishre and inaugurates the solemn Jewish season which concludes with Yom Kippur. In the Bible, the Jewish New Year Festival is called the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar and the Memorial of the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn). This instrument is designed to sound the alarm of the forthcoming solemn season, to awaken Jewry to prayer and repentance. It serves as a call to remember the historical events which made Israel a people, whether at Mount Sinai or on its entrance into Israel, or on the occasion of the proclamation of the Jubilee year. In Jewish liturgy, this feast also has two other names: Day of Memorial and Day of Judgment. Each of the different names of the Festival conveys one of its special characteristics.

Rosh Hashanah is not an opportunity for excess and mirth. If Jews rejoice in the festival, it is only in the knowledge that life still holds out the promise of better things. It is the occasion of self-examination, a time when, in the words of their prayers, all creatures are remembered before God. It is a Day of Judgment, not only in the Divine sense, but in the sense that on this day all Jews should judge their own actions. It is also a day of remembrance, not only of great events of the dim past, but also of the incidents of the human journey over the past year. Rosh Hashanah invites all Jews to recall with gratitude the many times they have been delivered from mishap and pain by the unseen hand of the Almighty One.

January 1: The Christian New Year

The Christian New Year is celebrated on January 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Like the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah, January 1 has also been given several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. We could say that this feast is rich in names, meaning, and mission. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e. eight days after the birth of Jesus). Before the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Christian New Year was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (the Holy Name of Jesus). After the Second Vatican Council, January 1 was established as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and it has also been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.

At first glance, we may ask ourselves if the New Year’s Feast has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to it. Furthermore, is it also not true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire, or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Or, is it possible to consider the Christian New Year in light of the Jewish New Year, and try to find unity and meaning in the various traditions now associated with this feast?

Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus

Let us consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year. In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). At his conception, it was proclaimed by an angel that his name would be “Jesus.” The Hebrew and Aramaic name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is a late form of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” or Joshua.

Eight days after his birth, Jesus underwent circumcision, the enduring sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people (Luke 2:21-24). The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one”; by this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person, and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name (John 14:13-14). In John 2:23, believing in the name of Jesus is believing in him as the Christ, the Son of God (3:18). The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience (Mark 9:38-39). Believing in the holy name of Jesus leads to confession of the name (Hebrews 13:15). Calling on this name is salvation.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Lord

“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam” whose etymology is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Mary received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). It was only on a Friday afternoon at Calvary, some 33 years later, that she would experience the full responsibility of her “yes.”

Daughter of Zion

Vatican II gave Mary a new title and role in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium #52. For the first time, the Church officially referred to her as the “Daughter of Zion,” a title with a rich Scriptural foundation. The title evokes the great biblical symbolism of the Messianic Zion. Mary is mother both of the Messiah and of the new people of God: the individual person and the whole people being very closely united, in line with the cultural structures of Israel. For the prophets, the Daughter of Zion was the spouse of the Lord when she observed the covenant. As “Mother Zion,” she not only welcomes and represents Israel, but the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant. Mary is the first Daughter of Zion, leading all of God’s people on the journey towards the Kingdom.

Mary’s womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man Jesus, but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. The Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are joined together in a very special way.

World Day of Prayer for Peace

The most recent “theme” attached to the Christian New Year has been the “World Day of Prayer for Peace.” Christians are invited to begin a New Year by praying for peace. But this action is not limited only to those who celebrate New Year’s on January 1! The Jewish people, in particular, are deeply united with Christians in praying for peace and making peace. Our God is peace. Even though we Christians consider God’s intervention in Jesus Christ to be decisive, this intervention did not represent the coming of the Messianic kingdom for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

In contemporary Christian theology, we have placed a strong emphasis on the “not yet” dimension of the Christ-event. As we wait together and work together as Christians and Jews for this Messianic kingdom, we must work together especially in the areas of justice and peace. The Jewish people are privileged partners with Christians in bringing about this kingdom of justice, love and peace. The Messianic kingdom for both Christians and Jews still lies ahead. It is not enough for us simply to pray for peace. We must work for peace, together. That is the work of those who long for the Messiah’s kingdom to fully take hold of our lives and our world.

A time to remember and give thanks

New Year’s is a time to reminisce about the past and to share hopes for the future. Authentic religion teaches us a reverence for life and gives us a sense of the holiness of God’s name. When we consider the various meanings attached to Rosh Hashanah and to the Christian New Year, we see some clear parallels. The God that Jews and Christians worship does not seek the death of sinners, but that they may return to Him and live. Both Judaism and Christianity teach that to destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world and to sustain a single life is to sustain an entire world.

The Jewish-Christian God speaks this word to all peoples: ‘Seek me and live,’ and ‘Choose life.’ Jews and Christians exist to reveal the holiness of God’s name and God’s sovereignty over all creation. In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism and Christianity recognize God as sovereign over all creation. Finally, Jews and Christians yearn for the day when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Rosh Hashanah and the Christian New Year are excellent opportunities for the celebration of life, a commitment to uphold its dignity and sacredness, and a plea for its continuance. They are feasts when we beg to be joined with women and men of good will everywhere, especially with those who know God as the God of the Exodus, and those who know God as the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of this New Year of grace, may the Lord give us an ever deeper sense of the holiness of the names of Jesus and Mary. May God send us out on mission, to be instruments and agents of life and peace.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God are: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; and Luke 2:16-21.]

(Image: “Nativita” by Carlo Marratta)

Emmanuel: God With Us, a reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica

Nativity2

Let us consider the Scripture stories that speak of the birth of Christ in history, about the Word becoming flesh. How do Matthew, Luke and John explain this great mystery in their Gospel accounts? What should be our response to this mystery that is prolonged in our midst through the Eucharist? What does it mean to adore the mystery of the Word made flesh?

Matthew’s Story

Matthew’s Gospel is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. In the genealogy, Jesus is the culmination point toward which Israel’s long covenant history has been leading, particularly its puzzling and tragic latter phase. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” (1:21), liberation from exile is in view.

Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth in human history fulfills at least three biblical themes. He brings Israel into the Promised Land; “Jesus” is the Greek for “Joshua.” As Emmanuel, “God with us”, Jesus embodies God’s presence with his people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23). As the new David, Jesus is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).

In the name “Emmanuel,” we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in this Child.

The name Emmanuel is also alluded to at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where the risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus. Jesus truly fulfills the plan of God in word and deed, in desire and presence, in flesh and blood.

His rejection by his own people and his passion are foreshadowed by the troubled reaction of “all Jerusalem” to the question of the magi who are seeking the “newborn king of the Jews” (2:2-3), and by Herod’s attempt to have him killed. Jesus’ mission during his public life is limited “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24), and he assigns the same limits to the mission of the Twelve (10:5-6). More than the other evangelists, Matthew takes great care to note that events in Jesus’ life happened “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23).

Luke’s Story

The Infancy Narrative of Luke’s Gospel contains some of the most touching, well-known biblical stories in the New Testament. On Christmas night we listen with awe and wonder to Luke’s beautiful Christmas story. In Luke’s story, we watch the shepherds as they tell one another the reason why they are setting off to Bethlehem: “Let us see this thing that has happened.” Literally the Greek text says: “Let us see this Word that has occurred there.” Luke presents us with the radical newness of Christmas night: the Word can be seen, touched, experienced and felt for it has become flesh.

We must raise several questions about Luke’s story…. about Mary and about the shepherds. Did the shepherds – religious outcasts from the hillside – ever anticipate the depths of the joy they suddenly found released in their hearts that when they heard the news they hurried off to Bethlehem? Perhaps the joy really did hit their feet and they surprised themselves by singing and dancing!

After four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ, we too should be prepared to be overtaken by joy at his arrival. If we have domesticated the announcement of his birth so that we are no longer stirred by the news, something is wrong with this picture! If we are not dancing for joy, we might have missed an important part of the whole story.

Through the mystery of the Incarnation – the Word made flesh – we are not given one new, mighty and glorious throne from which our God will rule over us, but two ways by which God will reign among us: from a crib in Bethlehem and from a cross in Jerusalem. We cannot have one throne without the other. They go together. Jesus’ coming among us at Christmas reminds us that the touch of gentleness and mercy is victorious over hatred, violence, occupying forces, weapons, and monologue.

The Word Made Flesh in the Fourth Gospel

The prologue of John’s Gospel climaxes with the announcement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) (in Greek literally: pitched his tent among us.) It’s a form of divine camping in our midst. This presence came about though the free love of God: “In this way the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4:9).

On Christmas Day, John’s Gospel Prologue is proclaimed instead of the rather idyllic story of the shepherds and the angels. The Word is not simply a message that we can put into words. It comes as a person, a life enfleshed and enacted. In Jesus, the message and the messenger are united. The medium is indeed the message!

Through the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation, the Word did not become a philosophy, a theory, or a concept to be discussed, debated, exegeted or pondered. But the Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved! So it’s all right for us to fantasize about that person’s revolutionary dreams, for a world of peace and justice, a world where no one cries and no one goes hungry… a world where the only occupation that takes place will be the Lord’s occupation of human hearts. But more than just fantasizing, Christmas asks us to believe his revolutionary dream, and to put it into practice each day.

The Word that becomes flesh is about compassion and vision, but there is also something frightening about it, a kind of desperate insistence. Our redemption is Jesus Christ. If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present sociological trends, despair would overwhelm us and even kill us.

Authentic Adoration of the Word Made Flesh

In the Eucharist, the Church joins Jesus in adoring the God of life. Adoration means being present, resting, and beholding. Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it.

In her essay entitled “The Mystery of Christmas,” (Edith Stein) wrote:

“In order to penetrate a whole human life with the divine life it is not enough to kneel once a year before the crib and let ourselves be captivated by the charm of the holy night. To achieve this, we must be in daily contact with God. […] Just as our earthly body needs its daily bread, so the divine life must be constantly fed. ‘This is the living bread that came down from heaven.’

If we make it truly our daily bread, the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation of the Word, will daily be re-enacted in us. And this, it seems, is the surest way to remain in constant union with God. […] I am well aware that many think this an exaggerated demand. In practice it means for most of those who start the habit that they will have to rearrange their outer and inner life completely. But this is just what it is meant to do. Is it really demanding too much to make room in our life for the Eucharistic Savior, so that He may transform our life into His own?”

The ways our words become flesh

New forms of electronic communication are everywhere and being reinvented again rapidly, but God doesn’t care. God does not buy a new iPhone or get a new app (mobile application). His communication platform is the human person. The Christmas message announces a new divine presence among us. Each day of our lives we seek the personal presence of those whom we care for and who care about us. We cannot imagine to leave friendship and love at a distance. Photographs, memories, letters, e-mail, text messages and phone calls are not enough. We want to enjoy the personal presence of those who fill our minds and let us live in their hearts. We live in God’s heart, and Christmas visibly brought among us the Son of God who cares infinitely for each of us. God did not want to live that love at a distance.

The feast of Christmas reminds humanity of one profound message: that God has mixed with the human family, and loved them all- the women and the men, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, those who love and those who hate, those who are beautiful and those who are not. And only God, himself, knows who is close and who is far from him. From now on, we can recognize God, not in the power and glory of our temple worship, our power, prestige and numbers. At Christmas we are taught where to find God: in the midst of humanity, in the thick and thin of the human race, in the smile and tears of a newborn baby, in the suffering of strangers, in the cherished gift of friendship. From now on, anyone who really understands that God has become human will never be able to speak and act in an inhuman way.

The highpoint of Jesus’ self-communication is in the Eucharist. Let us remember that the Word did not become an e-mail, an SMS or text message, or some kind of divine oracle uttered from some distant heaven long ago. Through Mary, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Word became close to real people in real time. May the Lord bless you, as your own words become flesh.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Emmanuel: God With Us, a reflection by Bishop William McGrattan

Emmanuel

In the Jubilee Year of 2000, John Paul II made a very insightful statement.  He said: “Our Christian witness would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated the face of the Lord.”  The same might be said of our fully entering into the Christmas season. Christmas is a time in which we are invited to fix our gaze on Christ in a new and fresh way. It is a time of jubilee, of celebration and the challenge to renew our Christian witness in the mystery of the Incarnation.  The Eternal Word, the Son of the Father took on flesh and came to dwell among us in time.

Have you noticed how natural it is for us to fix our gaze on the face of a newborn child? When they are awake or asleep there is a natural desire to look upon their face and to contemplate the very gift of humanity that is before our very eyes. There is also the opposite reaction when we witness the struggle and suffering of humanity on the faces of children and are moved with compassion.

I have also realized that in the many years of priestly ministry I have never failed to try and extend my hand and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of a young child. It is a sign of blessing from God who has made us in his image, secondly it is a reminder of the introductory ritual of baptism when the cross is traced on the forehead of the child by the priest, the parents, and the godparents as a sign that this child is being dedicated to Christ.  It is also a sign of Christ’s love which has fully embraced our humanity through the sign of our redemption: the cross.

The celebration of the feast of Christmas recalls through faith the moment in history when the “The Word became flesh”.  The Word who is the Son of God took on our humanity. This statement of faith we find in the opening Prologue of John’s Gospel on Christmas day.

The birth of Christ 2000 years ago invited the gaze of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. However it was the angels who announced the true significance of this mystery:

I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

From this moment in history, until the end of the ages this good news of great joy, is the fact that God is now present to us in a unique way, through his Incarnate Son, “God with us,” Emmanuel. God is no longer distant, revealing himself only through the signs and wonders of the Old Testament, or his Word being proclaimed by the prophets. With the Incarnation of Christ, he has taken on our humanity and entered the world. The mystery of the Trinity has come close to us so that we may contemplate His face through the mystery of the Incarnation.

The circumstances of the Incarnation, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem are significant. He was not born into a world of joy but one of suffering. Nor was he born into riches or security but into an experience of poverty and homelessness. In fact the circumstances in which we reflect on His Incarnation are no different even today from the squalor and poverty of Bethlehem. As one spiritual writer stated “there is Incarnation always, everywhere.”  For Christians his Incarnation now in us finds its expression in a spirituality of communion and solidarity.

At the dawn of the millennium John Paul II invited the Church to be a home and school of communion. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the hearts contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the “Mystical Body” (the Church) and therefore as “those who are a part of me.”  This makes us able to be in solidarity with them to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me.” Finally, a spirituality of communion means to know how to “make room” for our brother and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.

There is the burden of human need always and everywhere in our society. Yet during the season of Christmas it seems that we allow ourselves to become more aware of them and to be moved by them. The one challenge is to see the face of Christ always and everywhere in those we meet regardless of their life’s situation and to develop this spirituality of communion and solidarity.

As we contemplate the face of Christ, it is also essential and indispensable to affirm that the Word truly “became flesh” and took on every aspect of humanity except sin. Yet from another perspective the Incarnation of Christ is truly a kenosis – a “self-emptying” of the glory and divinity he possessed as the Son of God from all eternity. As John Paul II states, this truth may be more problematic for our own modern culture of rationalism as it has the tendency to deny the faith in the divinity of Christ.

The Incarnation of Christ, his becoming human, lays the foundation in our society for a vision of the human person which moves beyond the limitations and contradictions of this world and places us in relationship with God. This is another gift of the Incarnation. The gift of the human person created in the image of God and redeemed through Christ is the eternal message and gift of Christmas.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI writes:

Most of us in the world today live far from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who came to dwell amongst us. We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us and thus are a great distance from the manger. In all kinds of ways, God has to prod us and reach out to us again and again, so that we can manage to escape from the muddle of our thoughts and activities to discover the way that leads to him. God comes to us as man so that we might become truly human.

I was reminded of this very truth in the context of a visit to grade one class in the days leading up to Christmas. When things got busy and hectic in the parish I had the habit of simply going over to the grade school to visit the kindergarten and grade one classes.  This one day when I dropped into the grade one class the teacher had gathered the children to talk about Christmas and the gifts that each of them hoped to receive. She told the children that on her lap in a small chest there was a gift from Jesus for each of them. They could come up one by one and look inside but they could not tell the next classmate or speak about it until all of them had peered inside the chest to see the gift. So I watched this drama unfold, one by one the children came up to look inside and as they turned around with this look of excitement on their faces and heir hands over their mouth. I saw this repeated until the teacher motioned for me to come forward and look into the chest. To my amazement there was a mirror in the chest and I gazed on a reflection of my face. As I turned around there was giggling and excitement with the children. Then the teacher began to explain to them that the gift of Jesus for each of us at Christmas was that the Son of God became human like us that we might learn what it means to be human.

A simple way of teaching this profound mystery of the Incarnation, however, it is also a reminder of what the true gift of Christmas is and how we can live this mystery by accepting our humanity and living this gift in a spirit of communion and solidarity with others.

Most Rev. William McGrattan
ArchBishop of Peterborough

Zooming in on Joseph

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Feast of the Holy Family, Year B – Sunday, December 28, 2014

In the afterglow of Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family. This weekend we are invited to reflect on the gift and mystery of life and the blessing of family life in particular.

In Luke’s Gospel scene of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, we encounter four individuals who embrace the new life of Jesus held in their arms: the elderly and faithful Simeon, the old, wise prophetess Anna, and the young couple, Mary and Joseph, who in faithful obedience offer their child to the Lord. Simeon’s beautiful prayer is nothing more than an anthology of the prayer of ancient Israel:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

The whole scene of the Presentation, and the carefully chosen words of Simeon’s prayer raise several questions for us: How do I see God’s glory in my life? Do I thirst for justice and peace? What are the new situations and who are the new people who have entered my life in the last little while? How am I light and salvation for other people?

Today I would like to borrow from my new profession of television production and zoom in on Joseph, one of the characters found in this most touching Gospel scene of the Presentation. To “zoom” in on the foster father of the Lord gives us some profound insights into the family background of our Savior.

Joseph is often overshadowed by the glory of Christ and the purity of Mary. But he, too, waited for God to speak to him and then responded with obedience. Luke and Matthew both mark Joseph’s descent from David, the greatest king of Israel (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38). Scripture has left us with the most important knowledge about him: he was “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:18).

Joseph was a compassionate, caring man. When he discovered Mary was pregnant after they had been engaged, he knew the child was not his but was as yet unaware that she was carrying the Son of God. He planned to divorce Mary according to the law but he was concerned for her suffering and safety. Joseph was also a man of faith, obedient to whatever God asked of him without knowing the outcome. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him the truth about the child Mary was carrying, Joseph immediately and without question or concern for gossip, took Mary as his wife. When the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything he owned, all his family and friends, and fled to a strange country with his young wife and the baby. He waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to go back (Matthew 2:13-23).

We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, (more likely a builder), a man who worked to provide for his family. Joseph wasn’t a wealthy man, for when he took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Mary to be purified he offered the sacrifice of two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons, allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb.

Joseph revealed in his humanity the unique role of fathers to proclaim God’s truth by word and deed. His paradoxical situation of “foster father to Jesus” draws attention to the truth about fatherhood, which is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. He was keenly aware, as every father should be, that he served as the representative of God the Father.

Joseph protected and provided for Jesus and Mary. He named Jesus, taught him how to pray, how to work, how to be a man. While no words or texts are attributed to him, we can be sure that Joseph pronounced two of the most important words that could ever be spoken when he named his son “Jesus” and called him “Emmanuel.” When the child stayed behind in the Temple we are told Joseph (along with Mary) searched with great anxiety for three days for him (Luke 2:48).

Joseph’s life reminds us that a home or community is not built on power and possessions but goodness; not on riches and wealth, but on faith, fidelity, purity and mutual love.

The present challenges to fatherhood and masculinity cannot be understood in isolation from the culture in which we live. The effect of fatherlessness on children is deeply alarming. How many young people today have been affected by the crisis of fatherhood and paternity! How many have been deprived of a father or grandfather in their life?

It is not for naught that St. Joseph is patron of the Universal Church and principal patron of Canada. If there was ever a time when we needed a strong, saintly male role model who is a father, it is our time. And the feast of the Holy Family is a very significant day to go to Joseph and beg him to send us good fathers who will head families.

Joseph and Mary, more than anyone else, were the first to behold the glory of their One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). May St. Joseph make of us good priests, religious and laymen who will imitate the humble worker from Nazareth, who listened to the Lord, treasured a gift that was not his, all the while modeling to Jesus how the Word becomes flesh and lives among us.

[The readings for the Feast of the Holy Family are: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or Genesis 15:1-6, 21:1-3; Colossians 3:12-21 or Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19; and Luke 2:22-40.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

For Unto Us a Child is Born…

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Nativity of our Lord, Year B – Thursday, December 25, 2014

One of my personal Advent and Christmas traditions each year has been to attend (or at least listen to) Handel’s Messiah. My “Messiah night” took place this past week, not in a concert hall or church, but in my residence.

The choral section from the Nativity cycle of Handel’s work never ceases to move me each time I listen to Isaiah’s prophecy set to glorious music: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) Those marvelous words are taken from the prophet Isaiah and the first reading that we hear proclaimed each year at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Immediately preceding Chapter 9, Isaiah’s testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. But that darkness and distress were not the prophet’s final words. Precisely upon this land has shined a great light. The opening line of Chapter 9 forms a transition from the darkness of the previous chapter. “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined” (9:1-2).

The great light that comes decisively into this profound darkness tears people away from their confusion and emptiness, from the violence and tyranny of the oppressor. On the inhabitants of a country in the shadow dark as death, light has blazed forth! The symbols of the Assyrian oppression: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, shall be broken. The garments of war shall feed the flames. The destruction of warlike equipment heralds an age of peace.

The royal child whose birth is so poetically announced will possess the wisdom of Solomon, the valor and piety of David, the great virtue of Moses and the patriarchs. Presumably the child spoken of would be King Hezekiah. Contemporary kings of Judah had been disastrously advised and were powerless in warfare.

By the title “Wonderful Counselor,” the new king will have no need for advisers such as those who led King Ahaz astray. “Everlasting Father” describes the quality of his rule. The virtues of judgment, justice and righteousness that sustain the Davidic throne are summed up in the word “Shalom,” whose Hebrew root means wholeness, harmony, fulfillment and completion.

As a result of this new king’s reign, people will live in harmony with God, each other and nature. It is no wonder, then, that the Church has appropriated Isaiah’s exultation of this brilliant light and royal birth for our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Over the past year, who has not felt deeply the darkness and gloom of our world? Consider the tragic and violent situations of the lands we call “holy.” Lands that were once touched by God, the patriarchs and prophets, and the Messiah himself, are killing fields. Think of the uncertainty and despair that has set in because of the collapse of economic structures. Such strong feelings of darkness and gloom usually stem from our attempts to act as isolated beings or islands, instead of communities of people genuinely concerned about one another and about the suffering of so many people in our world.

During this festival season, Jews continue to long for the Messiah’s coming and Christians celebrate his birth in human history. But Jews and Christians are also invited to go beyond the outward symbols and ask the deeper questions: How do we continue to long for and actualize the salvation that the Messiah will bring? The prophetic texts read during the Hanukkah, Advent and Christmas feasts are a new summons to the synagogue and to the Church to reach out to one another, to recommit ourselves to bearing God’s light to the nations, and to recognize each other as partners in building up the Kingdom of God.

Both Christianity and Judaism seal their worship with a common hope: “Thy Kingdom come!” And we must utter this prayer more loudly and clearly in these days of shadows and darkness for so many in the world, especially for the people of Iraq and the Holy Land, torn apart by hatred, brutality, and division, as well as for those living in all other regions suffering war, poverty, and injustice.

Our common longing for the fruits of the Messianic Kingdom invites us — Christians and Jews — into a knowledge of our communion with one another and, a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world. As Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI have taught us through word, gesture and deed, nothing and no one can ever wrench us away any longer from that deep communion that unites us together. The tikkun ha’olam, the healing of the world, its repair, restoration and redemption — including the redemption of Israel, incarnate in the person of Jesus, now depends upon us.

[The readings for the Night Mass of the Nativity of our Lord are: Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-14.]

(Image: “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard von Honthorst)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.