To say that we live in fraught times is an understatement, but may be our lot for some time to come for reasons that are often hard to fathom. The crafted visions of the abundant life, free from pain, worry, and disease that we witness daily and nightly interlarded between news reports of calamities, disasters, mayhem, and terror strike a strange counterpoint. There’s more than irony in the proliferation of TV advertising for high-end cars followed by visions of empty lots and desperate salesmen – not to mention would-be consumers. That hundreds of thousands of our citizens (and many abroad) continue to oppose life-saving vaccines as COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to overpower our medical facilities staggers the imagination. Today, in the public view, even world-threatening climate change plays a very remote second fiddle to the antics of rogue senators and bowl games. The clock is ticking.
I suppose it has always been like this to some extent – I just can’t recall when.
No doubt the era in which Jesus lived, taught, healed, suffered and died had its own fraughtness. Perhaps we can learn something from all that, even though our readings for today seem oddly disparate. A single verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a continuation from last week’s reading, provides a clue. Before launching into an exhaustive catalog of gifts and ministries, Paul simply states, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” [1 Cor 12:13].
We’re all in this together and we need each other.
It was something very much like that realization that led the prophet Ezra to summon the remnant who had returned from their exile in Babylon to the wreckage of Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah would soon embark on a heroic effort to rebuild the Temple itself. Here, Ezra assembles the people and, we learn, reads the Book of Deuteronomy to them. It would take more than a few hours to read our present version of 34 chapters, and it is likely that the book was edited and expanded over the centuries. But the heart of the matter was the reading of the Law as it was handed down from the time of Moses centuries earlier.
Here too a long-remembered verse from that remarkable book provides a connection to the gospel account of Jesus’ citation from the Book of Isaiah when he rose to read in his hometown synagogue, apparently for the first time. In Deuteronomy 18:15-18 Moses proclaims,
“A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. This is exactly what you requested of the Lord, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
“And the Lord said to me, ‘This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.’”
Nehemiah does not tell us why the people wept when he read to them the book called Devarim (“The Words”). Was it from sheer joy or possibly from remembrance of the ancient promise? One way or another, the prophet instructs them to observe this day with a huge celebration, surely a tall order for a mob of hard-pressed refugees. “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” [Neh 8:10].
Today, many churches through the United States will observe Respect Life Sunday. Others did the same last Sunday, recalling a tradition begun in 1984 when President Reagan designated January 22 to be set aside to celebrate God’s gift of life, and committing ourselves to protect human life at every stage – from conception to natural death. This date was chosen because on this date in 1973 the Supreme Court made abortion legal in all 50 states in the Roe vs Wade decision.
Positions on abortion continue to divide US citizens, perhaps more than ever and sometimes violently as the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade nears and the Supreme Court appears poised to reverse the 1973 decision. The issues are grave, to say the least.
In the debate, and hopefully the decision, all the victims of unwanted pregnancy should be considered and held close, especially the very poor and defenseless. Nor should we forget those forced to undergo abortion against their will. Many years ago, I said this and I don’t think I would change it today:
“During the worst period of Communist party oppressiveness in China, the government ordered that a deformed fetus be aborted and that the mentally retarded could marry only if they were first sterilized. All pregnant women had to undergo mandatory pre-natal examinations. If tests indicate possible deformity or other problematic conditions, abortion ensued as a matter of course. Given the number of those under state care, the toll of that decision probably exceeded 10 million human lives annually.
“At almost the same time, I became aware of new treatments for children born with Down’s syndrome, which assist many in developing faculties and activities once considered forever beyond their ability. But even in the case of children who are severely retarded, as well as those born with birth defects, parents have often told me that the love of and for these poor ones have come to be the living heart of their lives. Henri Nouwen discovered that personally by working with developmentally challenged people in the L’Arche community in Canada. The revelation transformed his life.
“One of the most amazing scholars I met during my teaching years at Oxford University was a woman born without arms or legs who traveled the narrow, cobbled streets in a powered wheelchair. She tutored, lectured, and engaged in normal faculty activities. Such instances could be multiplied many times. The point is simple; God’s grace is poured out abundantly, perhaps more abundantly, through those who are accounted of little worth and is magnified by the compassion with which we address their needs.
“Compassion for the poor and suffering remains the bottom line of all world religions. This is certainly one of the lessons that God teaches us in today’s readings. We need each other. For we are all one in Christ’s body. And we are reminded today that each moment presents a new opportunity to build up that body, to become the whole Christ, to realize the unity of the Spirit in the gifts God has showered upon us to share.”
Pro Choice and Pro Life must ultimately mean the same thing, as we also learn from that ancient book: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him” [Deut 30:19-20].
At first glance, today’s readings seem to have little if any connection. The gospel account of the wedding feast at Cana continues the celebrations of the Epiphany, for it was traditionally commemorated on that occasion with the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan – celebrations extended into the following weeks – all manifestations of the coming of the Savior of the World.
The story of the wedding feast at Cana appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It is completely unknown to
the synoptic tradition, but there may be reason to accord it historical significance because one of the central figures is associated in the Gospel of John in importantly distinctive ways: Jesus’ mother. The Beloved Disciple knew her well, as we learn from a later, and much sadder moment in their lives – the crucifixion of her son [John 19:26-27].
Here, however, we find the first of Jesus’ miracles according to the gospel of John at a party, a wedding feast attended by Jesus and his disciples, perhaps unannounced, and his mom, who seems to have been a significant guest, most likely well-known to the families. When the wine runs out, she is the first to learn of it and turns to her son. After some hesitation, Jesus does what he’s told to do by his mom. Amazingly so.
“Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons” [John 2:6].
At 25 gallons per jar, according to modern standards, 150 gallons would equal about one and a half bathtubs full or 750 bottles of choice red wine. That would come to roughly 3000 glasses of wine or, for a party of 100 guests, about 30 glasses apiece. As Palestinian wedding feasts could last up to three or four days, that would not be an astronomical number, but is a considerable amount, given that the bridegroom had already provided wine for his guests and had run out, possibly because of the extra guests invited by Jesus’ mother. We can assume that she was well known to the bride and groom and may have been sufficiently in charge to tell the servants what to do.
In any case, the additional wine was not only a surprise but a shockingly good vintage. Between them, Jesus and his mom had spared the young couple and their families considerable embarrassment and gave a wonderful demonstration that God loves abundance. It was a fitting start to a mission of grace and generosity. And, it should be added, anonymous generosity.
Perhaps the other readings are not so unrelated at it seems. There is an obvious link in the culminating verse of the reading from Isaiah. But the significance of this passage lies much more deeply embedded in the joyful promise by a gracious God:
“Nations shall behold your vindication, and all kings your glory;
You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.
You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God.
No more shall men call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,”
But you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.”
For the Lord delights in you, and makes your land his spouse.
As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you” [Isaiah 62:2-5].
Graciousness and abundance — a theme amplified by St. Paul in his letter to the Christian in Corinth. After listing a number of the gifts bestowed on the infant church in its members, he sums it up in a brief observation: “it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as he will” [1 Cor 12:11].
Tomorrow citizens of the United States and many more throughout the world will mark the birthday of one of the most gifted of ministers of modern times, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This celebration should be the occasion of some deep soul-searching at this time in our nation’s history, when the freedom, inclusion, and equal justice he dreamed of and fought for seem to be once more in peril not so much by external enemies as from within. Whether because of the ravages of poverty and unequal access to medical aid in the midst of a global pandemic, or because of the perceived threat to powerful interests, people of color and other minorities have become targets of suppression not seen in this country for generations.
The challenge of Isaiah could well have been uttered by King himself and once again bears significantly on the future of freedom and justice everywhere:
“…I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch” [Is 62:1].
May the witness of Dr. King help lead us to confront the threats to full and unfettered participation in our collective efforts to secure the common good and lead to a greater resolve “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth” [Abraham Lincoln].
Another year has sped by, or it seems so to those who are of a certain age. For the young, it most likely dragged on as the world went through yet another cycle of the shape-shifting coronavirus first called Covid-19. Social unrest and unprecedented natural disasters followed suit. In all, 2021 was not a year of public peace and social well-being, nor for most of the world’s people, of prosperity.
We now have come around in the Church’s year to the commemoration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The joyful feasts of Christmastide are now hopeful memories, as the season of Christmastide ends with evening prayer tonight. Today we already sense urgency in the call for renewal of mind and heart. The gospels themselves move in a flash from the infancy narratives to the public manifestation of Jesus as the Promised One decades later. We know nothing about his formative years in Nazareth, although we can infer a great deal from what his message was when he began to preach.
All four gospels point to the manifestation of Jesus as prophet and messiah at the moment he was baptized by John in the Jordan. All testify that Jesus experienced an astonishing revelation, one shared by John the Baptist and apparently some of those gathered on the banks of the river awaiting their turn to be plunged into the water of redemption. Mark, Matthew, and Luke report a voice avowing “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,” a clear reference to the passage from Isaiah we heard in the first reading: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” [Isaiah 42:1]. Here, however, the voice is addressing Jesus himself. And all four gospels note the descent of the dove, which John adds “remained on him,” the sign he had been given earlier [John 1:32].
In the second reading, which Luke places very early in the history of the movement that would become the Christian church, Peter alludes to this when he announces to the houseful of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who was already a proselyte, “how God anointed [Jesus] with the Holy Spirit and Power” [Acts 10:3]. And, the account continues, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” [Acts 10:44-48].
The fire on the earth had begun to spread.
In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed with sacred oils to confirm him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized. A Voice may not come from heaven, a visitation by a dove is unlikely, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child, called in the same way to save the world with the gifts we have received. St. Paul would insist, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” [Rom 6:3-4].
As St. Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully preached, “Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him.”
“A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honor to the body that is one with God.
“Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining the world” [Sermon 39 ‘in Sancta Lumina,’ PG 36, 350-59].
On this day, the last Sunday of the Christmas cycle, when Christians around the world commemorate the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry, it is well to remember that goodness and nobility of purpose are not only possible, but already and always at work in the world. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. The grace of God is forever at hand.
A new year has dawned. Like a venerable Christmas stocking, the “old year” was stuffed with blessings, but they tend to be forgotten like auld acquaintance in the frosty light of the multiple misfortunes and mishaps that have seemed to strike every month, from flood and tempest, to wildfires, the latest variation in the Covid-19 pandemic, and what seems an endless cycle of school shootings. Americans will soon recall in graphic detail the horrific event of last January 6th and pray that we will never see another like it. The celebration of the Christmas feasts could hardly come at a more opportune moment.
They have piled on this year – in just over a week Christmas itself, then the Feast of the Holy Family, New Years (The Solemn Feast of the Virgin Mary), and today, the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Each has its way of reminding us that damage things as we might, the levers of history do not rest solely in human hands. Père Lacordaire said it well: “All I know of tomorrow is that Providence will rise before the sun.”
We usually associate the Visit of the Magi with today’s celebration, traditionally observed on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmastide. But from very early times, the Church commemorated three different events — the account of the homage given to the infant Jesus, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each was seen as a manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus. Each revealed a facet of God’s plan to save humankind – primarily from itself.
Today the Magi are the primary focus of attention — these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were. One thing is certain: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The
title is linked to the Persian priests, the Maghdim (or ‘Magoi’) of the cult of Mithra, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. There were in fact other Magi around Palestine at the time – two are mentioned in the New Testament: Elymas and Simon [see Acts 13:8 and 8:9-13]. Neither come off well. The title ‘magus’ itself is sometimes (erroneously) translated as “Magician.” But Magi were real, and they did study the stars.
Like the ox and ass invariably added to scenes of the Nativity, the crowns and gowns, camels, and slaves owe everything to later Christians’ imagination. The royal aspect, like the gifts — not to mention the ox and ass — are meaningful adornments supplied either by tradition or by Matthew himself based on verses from Hebrew scripture: Isaiah 60:6, Psalm 72:10-11, and for the ox and ass, Isaiah 1:3. Matthew’s gospel is in fact the only source for the story of the Magi, including the grim role played by Herod the Great, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt. No historical records back up any aspect of the dramatic story, which may simply have been Matthew’s very Jewish way of making his case using scriptural allusions – Jesus is called out of Egypt as the new Moses. Otherwise, it was a very roundabout way for the evangelist to get the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Luke doesn’t even try.
After worshipping the child and leaving their mysterious gifts, the Magi pass out of sight. But what do they and their gifts tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us?
What the Magi brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold, it is said, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense, which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering to God. Myrrh is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
But these were also dangerous offerings. The Magi very nearly paid for their visit with their lives, and the Holy Innocents certainly did. For these Persian star-gazers first looked for the King of the Jews where a king was likely to be found: in a palace. Palaces are dangerous places. The Magi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house, even a temporary lodging place. For Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus were about to become homeless refugees.
So who are the Magi, these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course, strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless and oppressed? And what gifts do we bring?
If, like those first Magi, we look in the wrong place, we may not lose our lives, but we could lose more than our way. We could lose our souls if the gifts we bring reveal a real lack of insight into the mystery continually opening before us: “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” [Mat 5:23-24].
There hasn’t been much talk this year about New Year’s Resolutions. But there is still more than enough time to pledge ourselves to a better, greener, more just and freer world, one in which the empty promises of ever-expanding commercialism are displaced by concern for the welfare of the planet and all its myriad living creatures. That would be a gift worth giving!
Like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, let us search for the place God has chosen to be found, not just where we think God ought to be. Let us pray for the grace to recognize Christ where he is still in hiding, and the wisdom to use our gifts in his service, to extend his gospel of truth and freedom, peace and justice and love especially to those who most need to hear it.
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.
Today marks the beginning of Advent, a joyful season of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Here in the U.S., a kind of normalcy is struggling to return, despite a recent upsurge in Covid-19 infections. Holiday decorations have been on display in the big box stores for months, and in a possibly premature celebration of the slowing of the world pandemic, trees and houses again illuminate whole neighborhoods, and Christmas carols – or perhaps more accurately, commercial carols — are heard throughout the land. In-person shopping has returned with a vengeance, including a record number of “smash and grab” burglaries from high-end shops and big-box stores from coast to coast. Thanksgiving travel was almost back to pre-pandemic levels as over 50 million Americans took to the roads and skies to celebrate the holiday elsewhere. Anywhere.
But all is not well. Since the last cycle of liturgical readings began on this Sunday three years ago, the world seems to have lurched on its axis. A new administration finally grasped the reins of power in Washington, although for the first time in history an angry mob armed with bear-spray and clubs stormed the Capitol on January 6th attempting to overthrow the elected government. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus continued to spread with terrible speed here and around the world, appearing most recently in a scary new variant. Ports are jammed with imports that can’t be moved, and there’s a shortage of Christmas trees and “goods.” Again this year, thousands of square miles of forest were incinerated in California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, as vast swathes of the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Western Pacific were burned or cut down to make way for more cash crops. An upsurge of deadly tornadoes pounded the South and Midwest while flash floods devastated the east coast as the planet spirals toward a climate disaster despite the timid promises of global meetings such as COP 26.
In the U.S., consumer debt has reached an all-time high. According to a November CNN report, “Americans have never been in so much debt.” https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/09/economy/fed-household-debt-inflation/index.html
Despite a slight dip in total debt at the beginning the pandemic, the “economy” as we like to call it, is struggling valiantly to return at least to pre-pandemic levels. But that was not exactly what could be called “healthy.” U.S. households now owe more than $15 trillion dollars in total debt. Average personal debt has climbed to nearly $54,000, while average household credit card debt rose to $6270. The average American consumer has a credit card balance of about $6,375, up nearly 3 percent from last year. Total credit card debt has risen to over $800 billion.
All in all, not a lot to be joyful about. Right on cue, today’s gospel is about the end of the world – not as the Wall
Street Journal might see it, but surely a prediction of vast social and natural turmoil as the world staggers from disaster to disaster. Yet the intent is to strengthen the resolve of Jesus’ hearers to be on guard against mindless distractions and reckless indulgence. The first reading from the Book of Jeremiah holds out the promise of the advent of a truly just ruler. St. Paul, too, encourages his readers in the earliest of Christian documents, to let mutual love strengthen our hearts and guide our actions so as to be blameless before the final Advent.
These are not tidings of comfort and joy. Not yet, anyway. They are a call to prepare the way of the Lord.
In fact, neither Advent nor Christmas have anything to do with buying stuff or spending money. As I said those three long years ago and is no less true today, they have everything to do with ultimacies — getting ready, preparing ourselves to greet Our Lord when he comes in glory. And if I got my catechism right, when he gets here, he’s not going to ask us about consumer debt or our credit rating, but our credibility. Did we really believe what he said when he told us to be ready, watchful, prepared? To have our loins girt and oil in our lamps? To make friends with the Mammon of Iniquity, to assist the poor, and forgive our brothers and sisters while there is still time? To feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and take in the stranger – the homeless and refugees [Mat 25:34-46].
The true health of a nation or a world cannot be measured in terms of consumer debt or Gross Domestic Product or how well or badly fiscal budgets are balanced. It consists, rather, in the degree to which love, mercy, and peace increase.
As Advent begins, it is a good time to take stock. How are we preparing to greet Our Lord when he comes? How will we as a people acquit ourselves in terms of the justice, peace, and compassion we are called to manifest to the world, especially to the weak, oppressed, and suffering? Will each of us be able to say that our values and attitudes were shaped more by the message of the gospel than the massage of the social media and the proclamations of our political leaders? After all, Advent is a time of joyful expectation, not of dread.
When Christmas finally rolls around, long after we are saturated with the plastic decorations, canned carols, animated cartoons about the early life of Santa Claus and Rudolf, and the endless accumulation of unneeded and often unwanted merchandise, what will we have in our hearts to offer the new-born King of the World? What does he really want from me and you? What gift is he asking us to bring to the manger?
Kings don’t amount to much these days. Elizabeth II has been much on people’s minds lately because of her longevity and ill health. She’s a good old thing, as the English might say. But she, like the great majority if not all monarchs in recent times, has no real power and authority. Royal influence, should we be so fortunate, is moral and sentimental. Constitutional royalpersons, as my students call them, must remain aloof from politics and serve largely as emblems of continuity with a fading and often inglorious past.
In fact, kings, and perhaps less so, queens, have been a sorry lot over the centuries. When the Israelites pressed Samuel to anoint a king for them like those who ruled over their pagan neighbors, he was unsparing in his warnings, not least of the moral depravity that follows the royal train like a starving hound.
“‘he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; … and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.’” And that was only for starters. Samuel finished by lamenting, “’in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’” [1 Samuel 8:4-20].
Samuel was the first of the prophets to insist that Israel’s true and only king is God. They wound up with Saul, who died crazy, corrupt, and out of sorts with God. It didn’t get much better after that. The long and dismal history of kingship largely proved Samuel right. So why would Christians over the centuries be keen on calling Jesus a king, much less King of the Universe?
In 1925 Pope Pius XI elevated the Feast of Christ the King to a celebration of the universal church in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that launched the First World War and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family in 1918 during the Russian revolution. It is widely believed that the pope did so in order to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause in the face of growing republicanism and with it the perceived threat of secularism and atheism.
But when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, that raised some serious questions about overreach. The universe is far more vast than scientists believed even in 1970. Would the notion of a planetary monarch on the outskirts of a respectable but otherwise insignificant galaxy in the trillions of galaxies “out there” have any meaning to the inhabitants of those faraway realms? It’s worth noting that only half our own world is nominally Christian today.
So today’s readings underscore the tensions inherent in calling Jesus a king in any meaningful way.
The first reading from the Book of Daniel ends with a prophecy concerning the coming of the Son of Man, who would receive dominion, glory, and kingship from God and rule all peoples and nations forever. The reading from the Book of Revelation similarly portrays Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”[Rev 1:8]. One of the last images of Jesus in Scripture is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” [Rev. 17:14, 19:16], a title originally borne by the Emperor of Persia. Such accolades hang on the notion of the “true king,” the ultimate monarch reigning infinitely above the limited power, petty intrigues, and lethal plans of earthly kings.
But did Jesus think of himself as a king? After all, the Roman authorities executed him because he was accused of claiming to be “the King of the Jews.”
But if we look behind the poetic imagination and fervor of the early Christians, Jesus himself was not particularly impressed with the notion of being a king of anything, just as he had very different ideas about what being the Messiah really meant. For Jesus, only the kingdom of God mattered. Before Pilate, who demands to know whether Jesus claimed to be a king, he replies tellingly, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the truth” [John 18:37].
Up to then, Jesus simply rejected the idea of kingship, even hiding himself when the notion of proclaiming him king popped up among his followers [John 6:15]. The words “king” and “kingdom” do not appear at all in Mark’s gospel.
It is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus comes closest to accepting the title of king. But he does so by giving his kingdom to his followers: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” [Luke 22:28-30].
Like everything else in the social world of his time and since, Jesus turned the notions of kingship and kingdom on their head. ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’ [Luke 18:17]. He tells Pilate to take a good look at what his kingdom means. It is not of Rome’s world, not an earthly kingdom, not a rule of force, or of money, or even of reason: Jesus is neither a tycoon nor a philosopher king. And his followers are the poor in heart, not the high and mighty.
Jesus ultimately reveals his kingdom from the Cross — a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom of grace and truth, a kingdom of peace and freedom. In the end, St. Paul tells us, Jesus even divests himself of his kingdom and hands it over to the One who sent him, having overcome every principality and power and authority hostile to God’s rule [1 Cor 15:24-25].
God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, is foremost one in which those who rule in fact serve. Those to whom we must look to see the face of Christ the King are the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and homeless, the tramps and prostitutes that annoy us on the street, abused children and battered women, those on death row for crimes they did not commit… people who are denied their human and civil rights because of race, gender, or religion.
For to such belongs the kingdom of God, the realm of Jesus, true King of the Universe.