Saturday, December 24, 2011

What We’ve All Been Waiting For: Reflections on the Readings for Christmas

Over the next twenty-four hours there are four Masses celebrated by the Church: the Vigil of Christmas, Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn, and Christmas Day Mass. The Readings for all four are so beautiful, it is like one continual spiritual feast, a veritable gorging on Scripture.

The texts for this Feast Day include some of the most pivotal in all of Scripture, and there is no end to the comments that could be made on each. Books have been written on John 1:1-18 (the Gospel for Christmas Day) alone, so here I am just going to be very brief and selective.

We start off with appetizers at the Vigil Mass, the Readings for which are here.

The First Reading (Isaiah 62:1-5) includes this beautiful promise of the restoration of the nuptial (or spousal) relationship between God and his People:

No more shall people 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.

The translation used in the US adjusts the Hebrew text here. The Hebrew is literally “as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you.” Since “sons” and “builder” sound similar in Hebrew, someone thought the above translation made more sense. But the interpretive tradition, starting from the ancient versions, has favored “sons,” understood ultimately as a reference to Christians (the “sons”) who espouse themselves (enter into covenant relationship with) the Church-as-Bride.

In any event, this beautiful text reminds us of the nuptial love of God for us, that Christ as our Bridegroom comes at this Feast to enter into a one-flesh relationship with us. This theme of nuptial love is one that spans the Bible, from the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation 21-22, with important stepping stones along the way in the Books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Psalm 45, and so many other texts, especially in the Prophets. A few days ago we read the beautiful canticle from Song of Songs 2 as the First Reading, which also spoke to this theme.

The Responsorial Psalm for the Vigil is Psalm 89, perhaps the most important Psalm concerning the Davidic Covenant. I commented on this Psalm last week. Here I would just note further: one can almost identify a “Christmas” and “Good Friday” partition of this Psalm. Up to v. 37 the Psalm is all “Christmas”: giving thanks to God for the fulfillment of his promises. But from v. 38 on, the Psalm enters into “Good Friday.” In any event, at this Feast we are concentrating only on the first part of the Psalm.

The Second Reading of the Vigil is from Acts 13, St. Paul’s inaugural sermon in the Book of Acts. This first sermon of St. Paul has strong similarities to the sermons preached by St. Peter in Acts 2 and 3, as the author (St. Luke) wishes to stress that these two great Apostles preached the same Gospel. One of the key themes in this sermon in Acts 13 is Davidic Covenant fulfillment:
Then he removed Saul and raised up David as king;
of him he testified,
'I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart;
he will carry out my every wish.'
From this man's descendants (lit. “seed”) God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
Speaking to a Jewish audience, this is what Paul wants to emphasize: Jesus of Nazareth fulfills the covenant promises given to our forefather David. (In the following chapter [Acts 14] St. Paul preaches to Gentiles, and of course cannot use this theme, since the significance of the Davidic covenant is lost on them.)

Thus, the Second Reading sets us up for the Gospel, Matt 1:1-25, which includes the Davidic genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17).

Many pastors throughout the US are going to use the shorter Gospel Reading option for tonight’s Mass, which omits the genealogy. That’s a shame, because the genealogy is one of the most interesting features of this Gospel Reading, in particular the inclusion of four unlikely women in the ancestry: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

The first three of these women were Gentiles, and Bathsheba was married to a Gentile. All of them had checkered personal histories: Tamar seduced her father-in-law Judah (Gen 38), Rahab was a Canaanite harlot (Josh 2:1), Ruth attempted to seduce Boaz (Ruth 3), and Bathsheba was apparently forced into adultery with David (2 Sam 11). Nonetheless, all of them were ancestors of Solomon, the greatest king of the Israelite tradition.

Matthew seems to be preparing us for a Son of David who will be criticized for socializing with Gentiles and prostitutes, and who will inaugurate a kingdom which welcomes sinners and all ethnic groups into its membership. Indeed, the inclusion of the Gentiles and sinners into God’s covenant has been foreshadowed already in the Old Testament.

In any event, I have a whole talk on this genealogy (available here) and the outline is free (available here). I think it makes for great preaching and teaching.

The Readings for the Midnight Mass focus on Jesus as God-Man. We begin with Isaiah 9, the promise of the “son” and “child” who will be born who will be called:
Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
I prefer the older rendering of the KJV-RSV tradition, used by Handel in the Messiah:

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

These are divine titles. Isaiah 9 is prophesying a divine man on the throne of David—an event that seemed remote and beyond all expectation in the 700s BC, when the northern tribes of Israel (the people living in the “land of gloom”) were being decimated by the invasion of the Assyrian empire.

The Second Reading includes an early testimony to the explicit belief in the divinity of Christ, as St. Paul writes to Titus:

we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,

For a defence of Paul’s authorship of Titus, see here.

Dan Brown (“The Davinci Code”) recently renewed an anti-Christian allegation popular among revisionist historians, Gnostics, and Christian heretics through the ages—namely, that the divinity of Christ was some innovation of the Council of Nicaea. These Readings remind us that the divinity of Christ was spoken by the Prophets and affirmed by the Apostles.

The Gospel is the beautiful Nativity account from Luke’s Gospel (famously quoted by Linus in the immortal Charlie Brown Christmas Special, a scene the TV executives wanted cut, but Schulz refused!) We notice all the references to Davidic covenant fulfillment: Bethlehem, David’s birthplace; Joseph “of the house and lineage of David”; the presence of shepherds, who remind us of David the Shepherd.

St. Luke takes pains to date the event by secular history (Caesar Augustus … Quirinius, etc.). He does not intend to record myths and fables, but real human events. As John also says, that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim to you” (1 John 1:1). Disbelieve if you will, but Luke and John intend to record history.

As Many have noted, the name “Bethlehem” is literally “House of Bread.” Thus it is appropriate that the “Bread of Life” should be born in the “House of Bread” and laid in a feeding trough. We will feed on Him in this Mass!

Skipping to the Mass for Christmas Day, we note two of the most theological rich readings from the New Testament as the Second Reading and the Gospel: Hebrews 1 and John 1 respectively.

The Book of Hebrew is difficult to understand until one realizes that the author (traditionally St. Paul, but disputed) is arguing that Jesus Christ is superior to all the mediators of the Old (that is, Mosaic) Covenant. In the Jewish tradition, God gave the covenant at Sinai (1) first to angels, who transmitted it to (2) Moses, who entrusted its administration to the (3) Levitical priesthood for the rest of time. This explains why Hebrews 1-2 shows Jesus superior to the (1) angels, Hebrews 3-4 demonstrates his superiority to (2) Moses, and Hebrews 5-10 shows his superiority to the (3) Levitical High Priest.

One of the major themes of Hebrews is that Jesus is both King and High Priest, like Melchizedek of old (Genesis 14). (Melchizedek, by the way, was widely held to be none other than Shem son of Noah, as the Targums attest.)

We see Jesus’ priestly and royal duties indicated already in the first verses:

When he had accomplished purification from sins, {this is a priestly act}
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, {a royal privilege}
as far superior to the angels {the first mediators of the Old Covenant}
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Then we come to John 1 as the Gospel Reading. What can we say about John 1? There are not words enough or time! The whole faith and the meaning of life are all encapsulated here.

Just a few brush strokes: with the allusions to “the Beginning” and “Light and Darkness,” John is evoking Genesis 1 and the first day of creation, insisting that with Jesus Christ, the world has experienced a New Creation, a change as fundamental as the initial transition from non-being to existence.

The first Creation culminated in the formation of Adam, the first man and son of God (Luke 3:38). But this “second Creation”, which really predates the first Creation, brings us a better Son of God, who existed prior to the first son of God. The first son lost us the rights to divine sonship (filiation), but this second one has regained them for us:
But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God
That’s what this birth in a manger means for us this Christmas. That little baby from God made it possible for us to be little babies from God, made it possible for us to be born anew, afresh, again (John 3:5-8), innocent, like at the dawn of creation.  As the first creation was born out of water and Spirit (Genesis 1:2), our rebirth is by water and Spirit (John 3:5).

This baby is born, so that we can be reborn.

Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

"Aunt" Judy said...

A moving and glorious commentary.