Today, still in the bright glow of Christmas Day, we mark the Passover of one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century and after – Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a man who in the words of President Obama became the moral compass of the world. Almost diminutive in physical stature, Tutu towered above his contemporaries for his Christian witness, his humility, courage, and gentleness. His non-violent opposition to the cruel apartheid system in his native country was relentless and reached its culmination with the election of Nelson Mandela as president, a leader Tutu had championed for decades. His name will be a blessing or ages to come.
In the liturgical cycle, we are celebrating the first Sunday in the octave of Christmas, Holy Family Sunday. In a world where families are so frequently torn apart at the borders of too many countries where they are seeking asylum, where spousal abuse still too frequently reigns, where child brides are still bought and sold, where children are forced to work in mines and dumps, where families perish of hunger and malnutrition, and so many are killed by warfare and criminal violence, we need the moral compass of God’s word more than ever to guide us in a better direction than that we too easily follow.
Nor should we forget that according to Matthew’s gospel the Holy Family we celebrate today had to flee from Bethlehem and
seek refuge in Egypt to escape the murderous intent of King Herod the Great. Luke’s gospel provides a different perspective, one that takes place years later, when the family had returned to Palestine and located in the village of Nazareth. But it, too, is not devoid of anxiety and loss.
Following their custom of walking to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Joseph and Mary become separated from the boy Jesus. Because men and women were grouped separately, his absence was not noticed for hours, probably at nightfall when families reunited for the night. Each no doubt thought Jesus was with the other group, which given his age would not have been unusual.
In what seems to have been a panic, the couple return to Jerusalem, frantically searching for the boy. When they finally come upon him in the Temple yeshiva, Jesus is engaged alongside other youngsters in questions and answers with teachers of the Law. He appeared to be unsurprised that Mary and Joseph were so worried. After all, that was where they had last seen him and where, he said, he ought to be. Dutifully, he returns with them to Nazareth and the obscurity of a peasant youth growing to maturity in a devoutly religious household.
Luke simply tells us Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” [Luke 2:51-52].
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, St. Paul seems to have had something like this in mind, and it is still excellent advice when he urges mutual love, obedience, and forbearance, including a wry and always pertinent bit of counsel: “fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart” [Col 3:21]. The beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach used as our first reading presents us with whole litany of good counsel regarding family life. It is worth noting that it is mainly about grown children’s abiding respect for their parents, especially when they are aged and in need of support. This recalls the seminal passage from the Book of Exodus, the mainstay of a godly life: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” [Exodus 20:12. See also Deut. 5:16]. While we may bridle in an increasingly post-patriarchal age at some of St. Paul’s injunctions regarding spousal values, the overarching message remains unchanged: harmony, love, and respect should prevail in the family home.
As the New Year approaches, we may regard the near future with some trepidation. But after the pandemic, when sanity returns to the political scene, when peace settles at last like a gentle snowfall on a wrecked landscape, our moral compass should not need to be reset. But if it does, we have the guidance of God’s abiding word and the example of saints like Desmond Tutu to help us set it right again.
May you have a healthy and joyful New Year.
As we near the end of 2021 it seems that each passing week witnesses another disaster or tragedy, from the weather to the economy, that has everyone’s nerves on end. The prospect of yet another “lockdown” fills many a heart with dread. Worldwide, over 5 million people have already died from the coronavirus. Just in the United States, over 800,000 have succumbed and the grim toll is slowly edging toward a million. In total cases the US leads the world—nearly 52 million. Fortunately, most people survive, but a heart-crushing number do not.
In all this, Christians everywhere anticipate a happy and holy Christmas, if only in our dreams. People of all faiths look forward, if at possible, to a few days of celebration as we hold each other a little tighter, a little longer.
As the great celebration of the Nativity draws near, we will hear a lot about the “little town of Bethlehem,” which was so significant in the account of Jesus’ ancestry and birth. It is part of the “evidence” Luke and Matthew present for proclaiming Jesus Lord and Messiah.
The first reading from the Book of Micah, one of the “minor” prophets who lived in the 8th century BCE, finds importance
today because it is cited in Matthew’s gospel [Mat 2:1-6] as predicting the birthplace of Jesus. But its significance stretches back to the time of the first great king of Judah, David, who was born there and most likely crowned there. Like Jerusalem, it is known as the “City of David.”
Prophesying hundreds of years after David’s rule, Micah points to a coming sovereign who also would be born there, one like David who would shepherd the people of Israel: “…you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” [Mic 5:2]. Although later interpreted as a Messianic prophecy, there is no direct mention of the Messiah, the “Anointed One” in Micah. Later Christians would interpret the passage in that light, however. And common belief at the time held that the coming Messiah would be a lineal descendent of King David.
These connections are of surpassing significance in the thought of the evangelists, who trace Jesus’ lineage through his putative father Joseph back to David. Luke tells us that Joseph was born in Bethlehem, which is why he is obliged to return there for the census [Luke 2:4]. Mary, too, had family in Judah, for she had hurried there when she heard that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, was pregnant at an advanced age. The family clearly kept in touch. How both Joseph and Mary wound up in Nazareth, about 90 miles to the north, is not part of the story. What is important is that they were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
The second reading comes from the “Letter” to the Hebrews, actually a long and elaborate interpretation of the “high priesthood” of Jesus, who in fact was not descendent from a priestly line, which has come to an end. The author not so subtly argues that the “sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings,” so central in the past, are now absorbed in the one sacrificial self-offering of Jesus’ own life. The destruction of the Temple by the legions of Titus in 70 CE did bring the Jewish priesthood and their services to an end, a tragic event which may have formed the background of this part of Hebrews. In any case, the destruction of the Temple and later of Jerusalem itself is reflected in the New Covenant passage we have just heard read.
Too much by far as been made of so-called “replacement” theory. In the long history of the Hebrew people, God frequently reestablished a “new convent” with Israel when the previous covenant was broken [see Ezekiel 16:8-62 for a long account of God’s eternal covenant with the Chosen People]. In the author’s eyes, that eternal covenant has been renewed through the blood of Jesus, once and for all time.
All this is brought to its first climax in today’s gospel reading which focuses less on Jesus than on his mother, who is blessed by the Child within her “for she trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled” [Luke 1:45]. And that brings us back to those words themselves, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” [Luke 1:31-33].
Soon, the bustle and scurry of the “holidays” will reach their peak of excitement and, for those who are traveling to be with family and friends, of probable frustration and a little anxiety– not unlike the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. In all the likely distractions and enjoyments of the season, we are given this chance to recall the words of that chosen vessel who trusted that the Lord’s words to her – and to Joseph — would be fulfilled…
…his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” [Luke 1:50-55].
This Year of Our Lord, 2021, seems destined to end in both a deep sense of grief and a persistent hope for the future. It is an old story, but perhaps never so acutely felt than at the moment. Yesterday’s devastating tornadoes, an appalling school shooting and another thwarted, an upsurge in the pandemic, economic stresses, and mounting threats to democracy at home and abroad – all could easily and understandably engender moments of dread and anxiety and a longing for a way forward. Or else we’re not paying attention.
It is difficult not to, as the multiple outlets of social media immerse us at every turn in a catalogue of calamities, danger, and misfortune. It is especially noteworthy that anxiety is increasing especially among young people. And yet…
And yet, today Christians throughout the world are called to observe what was once called Gaudete [Rejoice] Sunday, from the opening
words of the entrance song taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!” We hear more of the letter in the second reading, but the exhortation to rejoice sets the tone for the day’s observance. The words “joy” or “rejoice” appear in the readings and responsorial psalm about 10 times. Today, however difficult, we are called on to dismiss all anxiety from our minds and to offer our prayers in a spirit of gratitude, to rejoice.
Since the Middle Ages, the more somber violet vestments of the Advent season were lightened today to rose. Like Laetare Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent, we peer ahead to recall what the season is all about. And of course it is about joy, the common theme of all the liturgies of Advent. But have you ever wondered why we have to be reminded to rejoice? It’s not because everything is going wonderfully well – we would need no reminder in that case. It is because things do not go well and sometimes go very, very badly as they did yesterday, and if we are honest about it, almost everywhere and a lot of the time.
Grief and worry sometimes and perhaps too easily cast a shadow over the season, dimming our anticipation of a joyful Christmas – despite the chorus of commercial promises of instant happiness competing powerfully with news of sorrow, want, and loss. But the clamor of commercialism is at most a distraction covering over the underlying uneasiness that all is very far from well.
And so many of us need to be reminded on this Gaudete Sunday not only to rejoice, but why and what joy really is. In the passages from Zephaniah and Isaiah’s psalm, the Hebrew word for “joy” [ranan] means joyful singing and shouting. Other words used in these texts [sasown and simchah] mean to be bright, cheerful, glad, to rejoice, to be mirthful, even to be welcome. Joy is mentioned more in the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms than in all the other books of the Hebrew Bible put together.
Such joyfulness is not just good cheer or high morale. That kind of joy can’t be bought. It doesn’t have anything to do with merchandise or office parties. Or even lavish lawn decorations. And that’s what the gospel is about, the only reading for today that doesn’t seem to say anything about joy.
When the crowds come to John the Baptizer, they have a sense that something is wrong and he might be able to help them. They were discouraged, sad, and probably fearful. “Tell us what to do,” they say. And what John tells them is startling. “Be generous, be just, be gentle. Tell the truth and stop trashing each other’s reputations. Don’t gripe over your salary.”
It still sounds a bit crazy. Other than billionaire CEOs, who’s ever content with their pay? But John tells the crowd that someone else is coming, someone who will baptize the world in fire and the Holy Spirit. They needed to get ready. He showed them how. And they thought that was very good news.
Perhaps it takes a bit of anxiety and discouragement to appreciate truly good news. That may be why the gospel of Jesus, the “good news” of salvation, was first preached to the poor, the oppressed, the downcast and troubled. And still is. The good news they are looking for, and what they will find, is “God’s own peace,” as Paul writes to the Philippians, “a peace beyond all understanding which will stand guard over your hearts and minds” [Phil 4:7].
In these trying times, when our souls are so likely to be troubled, such deep-rooted gladness of the heart, real cheer, is what the world desperately needs. And as the prophet Zephaniah surprisingly said, “May God rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in love; may God sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals. ‘I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it’” [Zep 4:17-18].
As the great St. Augustine preached as his own world was crumbling before hordes of Vandals, “Sing! But keep moving” [Sermon 256, I.2.3]. It’s good to know that God sings, too. So, yes, rejoice. The Lord is nearer now than ever.
As the days grow shorter before the great feast of the Nativity, it is sometimes hard to be “of good cheer.” Each week seems to bring news of more tragedy and disaster, of political conflict, war and rumors of war, not to mention economic hardship and the spread of contagion. Not much to celebrate — if we’re paying attention at all.
But the Sundays of Advent sound a different tone, one that the world needs right now. Scripture does not deny the sorrows and sufferings of life. But as we see in today’s readings, it offers an alternative to depression, desperation, and despair.
The joyful promise of today’s readings first calls on the prophet Baruch, son of Neriah, according to tradition the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe and a major compiler of the Hebrew scriptures. He appears to have been deported to Egypt with Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BCE. Citing the passage from Isaiah we are so familiar with from its musical citation in Handel’s “Messiah,” Baruch looks forward to the return of the captives to Judah on a great broad highway: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that the ancient valleys and gorges filled to level ground that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” [Bar 5: 7-9. See Is 40:3-4].
The responsory verses from Psalm 126 continue the theme of the joyful pilgrimage back to Jerusalem after decades of captivity in far-off Babylon, now southern Iraq. The passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi expresses the same longing as he looks forward to the return of Jesus in glory: “My prayer is that your love may more and more abound…so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ” [Phil 1:8-9].
The gospel reading returns to the jubilant prophecy of Isaiah cited by Baruch, as Luke prepares us for his account of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. It is not only that John’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, but more accurately “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” [Is 40:3]. Not only or even especially in the desert, but in the wilderness of our minds and hearts, so that we may “be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in us,” as Paul has it.
Luke is at pains to identify the moment at which John and then Jesus appear in the real wilderness of the Jordan valley, citing the custom of dating events from the accession of a king or emperor as no common calendar existed. The Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the stepson of Caesar Augustus, reigned from 14 CE until 37 – which would place the public appearance of both John and Jesus in the year 29 CE, which has become the standard by which most events in the Christian scriptures have been dated. That would make Jesus about 33 when he joined John at the Jordan River, the age favored by tradition.
Palestine was not enjoying a particularly peaceful period. The Pax Augustana had given way to a sense of oppression and growing resentment at the Roman occupation. In the preceding years, several revolts had been mercilessly crushed by the Roman army. Taxes were high. Injustice was commonplace. In the midst of the disquiet, John’s message was simple and clear – what was required was to change the way of thinking—”repentance,” a sorry translation of the term “metanoia.” He chose to signify this change of heart and heart by baptism.
Bathing in the famed Jordan River was not uncommon, and ritual baths could be found in towns and villages as well as the city of Jerusalem. Some sects such as the Essenes practiced baptism daily, as a sign of internal purification. John’s practice was different. No longer did those expressing their desire for renewal plunge themselves in the water, but John himself baptized them. After his death by martyrdom, John’s custom of baptizing was continued by his followers, including Jesus’ own disciples. It is the form that is still used today. Luke also points out that John’s baptism was not simply a rite of symbolic purification but led to the forgiveness of sins. It still does.
It is here that Luke turns to the prophecy of Isaiah, the fulfilment of the ancient promise. The pivot-point of the moral and spiritual history of the world has arrived.
In this year of so many sorrows, as the wonderful Feast of the Nativity of Jesus draws near, I am reminded of the splendid song from Jerry Herman’s great musical Mame, in which after losing her fortune in the Wall Street collapse of 1929 the irrepressible Auntie Mame wistfully proclaims, “We need a little Christmas”:
“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older…”
As we face yet another season of uncertainty, sickness, and conflict, we don’t need more plastic junk under the so-called “holiday tree” or empty variety shows,
“… we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
‘Happy ever after,’
Need a little Christmas now.
In truth, we need a lot of Christmas. The whole world needs more Christmas, the real Christmas, the celebration of justice, peace, and love, of kindness and benevolence. That’s what Advent is about.