Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Readings

The Christmas Solemnity has distinct readings for four separate masses:  Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and Day.  There’s such a wealth of material here to meditate on, that not everything can be covered.  In fact, there is almost an entire biblical theology in the sequence of readings of these four masses.  In what follows, I am going to offer just a few brief comments on the more salient points.

Christmas Vigil Mass

1. Reading 1 Is 62:1-5:
For Zion’s sake 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.

Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all the 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 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.
We have been reading from Isaiah all the way through Advent and now reach a particularly dramatic and beautiful oracle.
Zion/Jerusalem was the capital city of the nation of Israel, the city of the Temple, and mystically the New Eden.  Israelites considered it the navel of the universe, the center of the earth, and in Isaiah it becomes the heart and embodiment of God’s people.  Jerusalem is more than a city, it is a mystical reality.  The Apostles and New Testament authors understand Jerusalem to be the Church, the bride of Christ (see Hebrews 12:22-24; Rev. 21–22).
In “nations shall behold your vindication, and kings your glory,” we see a mystical reference to the growth of the Church throughout the world, and her conversion of many nations and kings into her fold. “You shall be called by a new name”—and so the people of God acquired a new name, called after the name of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  The image of a crown or diadem is used elsewhere in Scripture of the relationship of a wife to a husband: she is his crown.  Here, the new Jerusalem is the crown of the LORD God, her spouse. 
The rest of the passage employs heavy nuptial imagery to describe the resumption of the marriage relationship between the LORD and his people.
It is essential that we recognize that, in the Old Testament, marriage was primarily a covenant (that is, a legal kinship) relationship between a man and woman.  So this imagery of the resumption of marital relationship bespeaks covenant renewal.  This passage is speaking of a new covenant between God and his people, which, like marriage, will involve bodily union.  Thus we see a fulfillment in Luke 22 and the establishment of the Eucharist:  “This is my body given for you …. This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.”
These nuptial prophecies in Isaiah and other prophets are employed by the Church just before or at Christmas because in the Incarnation we see the “wedding” of human and divine nature.  When the Second Person of the Trinity takes on the flesh of a human being, he “marries” our humanity.  Forever after we are united to a God in a one-flesh union through the Jesus the Christ. 
There is a double entendre in the phrase “your builder shall marry you.” In Hebrew, “builder” and “sons” have the same consonants.  Different English translations adopt one option or the other.  In my view, the ambiguity is intentional and both meanings are significant.”  “Your builder shall marry you”: God your Creator will wed your nature.  This calls to mind the image of Eve, who was literally “built” (Heb. banah) by God from the rib of Adam.  Eve is a type of the Temple and of the Church.  “Your sons shall marry you”: the young men of the Church shall espouse themselves to her, most dramatically by taking on apostolic celibacy, in which they have no other spouse but the people of God.  Every faithful priest is a “son” of the Church who has “married” her.
2.  Responsorial Psalm Ps 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29:
R. (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout;
in the light of your countenance, O LORD, they walk.
At your name they rejoice all the day,
and through your justice they are exalted.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
He shall say of me, “You are my father,
my God, the rock, my savior.”
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Psalm 89 is perhaps the Davidic covenant psalm par excellence,  the most explicit description and praise of the covenant of David in all the Psalter.  The readings for masses of Christmas place a heavy emphasis on the fulfillment of the promises God made to David.  This covenant seemd to have been abandoned by God from 587 BC on, when the last son of David to rule on the throne was deposed and taken into exile.  But Jesus of Nazareth is the descendant of David who rules over the nations forever.  It does seem remarkable, even from a human perspective, that here 2,600 years after the last son of David visibly ruled on the throne in Jerusalem, there are over 2 billion people in the world who claim some kind of allegiance to David’s ancestor Jesus.  God’s promises to David have been fulfilled, despite all impediments to the contrary, so in the this psalm we praise God for his “goodness.”  The Hebrew word translated “goodness” here is “hesed,” which means more precisely “covenant faithfulness.”
3. Reading 2 Acts 13:16-17, 22-25:

When Paul reached Antioch in Pisidia and entered the synagogue,
he stood up, motioned with his hand, and said,
“Fellow Israelites and you others who are God-fearing, listen.
The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors
and exalted the people during their sojourn in the
land of Egypt.
With uplifted arm he led them out of it.
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 God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’”
The key phrase from this reading is in the middle: From this man’s (David’s) descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.  So, much like the Psalm, this reading, too, emphasizes the fulfillment of God’s promises to David in Jesus.
The Church employs this second reading from Acts, because in it Paul succinctly articulates salvation history leading up to Jesus: the Exodus and Mosaic covenant; the conquest of the land and the Davidic covenant; the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant announced by John the Baptist.  John the Baptist has dominated the season of Advent, as we often meditated on him in his role as forerunner and herald of the coming of Jesus. 
4. Gospel Mt 1:1-25:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham became the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez became the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab became the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz,
whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz became the father of Obed,
whose mother was Ruth.
Obed became the father of Jesse,
Jesse the father of David the king.

David became the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asaph.
Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Joram,
Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amos,
Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the Babylonian exile.

After the Babylonian exile,
Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud.
Abiud became the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok.
Zadok became the father of Achim,
Achim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar became the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.

Thus the total number of generations
from Abraham to David
is fourteen generations;
from David to the Babylonian exile,
fourteen generations;
from the Babylonian exile to the Christ,
fourteen generations.

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,
and he named him Jesus.
This reading is tremendously rich, and there is more here that I can adequately cover at this time.  Hopefully everyone will read the full reading rather than the shorter option, which skips the genealogy.  The genealogy is one of the most interesting aspects of this reading, so it would be a shame to skip it.

Matthew begins the New Testament with “The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In this way, Matthew associates Jesus with the fulfillment of promises made to three great patriarchs: Adam, David, and Abraham.

The phrase “The Book of the Genealogy of” links Jesus to Adam, because the only other occurrence of this phrase in Scripture is in Genesis 5:1, which reads “This is the Book of the Genealogy of Adam.”  In this way, Matthew presents us with Jesus as a New Adam, an new father and founder of the human race, a new sinless man and firstborn son of God the father; a prophet, priest and king of the cosmos.

Then, by calling Jesus the son of David and the son of Abraham, Matthew indicates that Jesus is not merely a descendant of these men, but the particular descendant through whom the covenant promises made to them will be fulfilled.  To Abraham God promised “through your seed (i.e. descendant) all the nations of the earth will be blessed,” (Gen 22:18), and to David he promised “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.   He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). 

Matthew then proceeds to give Jesus’ genealogy.  Though we tend to regard genealogies as boring, they were of great importance in Jesus’ day, when controversy surrounded both the kingship and highpriesthood, since neither the king (Herod) or the high priests (descendants of the Maccabees) had the correct genealogies to serve in their offices.  Herod, in particular, was only half Jewish and had no connection to the line of David, although he made a claim to have Davidic blood (which absolutely no one believed).  This is one of the reasons Herod was so paranoid about threats to his reign: he knew that the populace did not consider him legitimate.

The following genealogy is broken in to three sets of fourteen, since fourteen is the numerical number of David’s name (D-V-D) in Hebrew (V is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet).  Matthew is using literary artistry to emphasis the Davidic descent of Jesus.

Four women are included in the genealogy: 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 1), Ruth attempted to seduce Boaz (Ruth 3), and Bathsheba was apparently forced into adultery with David.  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.  He is also probably contrasting the checkered ancestresses of Solomon, the greatest King of Israel and type of the Messiah, with the immaculate purity of the Blessed Virgin.  “One greater than Solomon is here.”  Later, Jesus will be visited by wise men from the East when he is still an infant, outdoing Solomon who was not visited by wise men from the East until he was at the height of his career (1 Kings 4).

Matthew’s intention in the genealogy seems to be to establish Jesus’ legal right to the throne more than his biological descent.  I say that because, at the end of the genealogy, Matthew makes clear that there was no biological relationship between St. Joseph and Jesus.  Nonetheless, Jesus was Joseph’s legal son and heir to the throne.  This was common procedure in the ancient world: for example, Augustus Caesar was Julius Caesar’s legal son (by adoption) but biological nephew.  In my view, the biological genealogy of Jesus is given in Luke 3 (through Mary’s father/Joseph’s father-in-law Heli [=St. Joachim of tradition]).

(My whole treatment of the genealogy is available on my CD “TheGenesis of Jesus,” available here)

The rest of the Gospel reading is the “Annunciation to St. Joseph.”  St. Joseph is known in tradition as the “silent one,” because none of his words are recorded in Scripture.  He seems always to respond to God in silent obedience.  The brief words of this Gospel quickly recount what in fact must have been a difficulty and emotional time for St. Joseph, and a trial of his faith.  There was the shock of learning of Mary’s pregnancy, the confusion over its meaning and the implications for their relationship, the struggle over how to respond and what action to take, the heart-breaking decision to seek a quiet divorce, the surprise of divine revelation in a dream, the struggle of faith over whether to trust the dream or dismiss it as his imagination, etc.  We overlook the interior struggle that St. Joseph underwent in his role as husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus.  So much in salvation history depended on his quiet fidelity!  He sets an example for so many of us whose contributions to the Church are going to be overshadowed by others with greater gifts, reminding us to remain faithful, because our quiet roles are essential even if they go unheralded.  St. Joseph, pray for us!

Midnight Mass

1. Reading 1 Is 9:1-6:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
In the historical context of this oracle, the “people who walked in darkness” is  a reference to the northern tribes of Israel whose traditional tribal territory was around the Sea of Galilee.  This was the first part of Israel to be destroyed by foreign enemies (the Assyrians c. 722 BC).  Yet it would be the first part of Israel to behold the beginning of the restoration of God’s people (when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee).

The heart of the passage is the promise of a “child” and a “son.”

I prefer the older rendering of the KJV-RSV tradition, immortalized in Handel’s Messiah:

“His name shall be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

In Hebrew, the name denotes the essence of the person.  “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” are titles of Solomon, indicating that this “son” will stand in Solomon’s place.  “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” are divine titles, indicating that this “son” will be more than a mere human being.  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.

2.  Reading 2 Ti 2:11-14:

The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.
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,

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.  St. Paul is confirming the prophecy of Isaiah, affirming the truth that we have been given a human “child” whose “name” is “Mighty God.”

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!):

3. Gospel Lk 2:1-14:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 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.

There is a well-known historical issue with the dating of Quirinius, who according to some historical records seems not yet to have been governor of Syria at the time of Jesus birth.  But the Greek of this passage can possibly be rendered, “This was the census prior to Quirinius being govenor of Syria,” in which case the chronological problem is solved (so F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?).  There are other possible solutions (see Hahn and Mitch, Ignatiust Catholic Study Bible, excursus ad loc.).

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 (a “manger” from “mangé,” “to eat”).  We will feed on Him in this Mass.

Mass at Dawn

1. Reading 1 Is 62:11-12:
See, the LORD proclaims
to the ends of the earth:
say to daughter Zion,
your savior comes!
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
They shall be called the holy people,
the redeemed of the LORD,
and you shall be called “Frequented,”
a city that is not forsaken.
This is virtually a continuation of the First Reading from the Vigil Mass, and most of the commentary above is applicable here as well.  We are “daughter Zion”—an image which bespeaks the virgin daughters of the king who were of marriageable age.  The Hebrew is literally “your salvation comes” (not “your savior,” though the meaning is close), in Hebrew yish{eœk≈, from the same root that gives us y’shu{a, “salvation,” rendered in Greek, iesus, “Jesus.”
The “redeemed of the Lord” is g§}u®le® yhwh, from the verb ga}al, “to redeem.”  In the Old Testament, if one got in trouble of some kind (captured, or sold into slavery), one’s go}el or “kinsman-redeemer,” that is, one’s nearest male kinsman of means, was supposed to come to the rescue.  We see this in the Book of Ruth, where Bo’az (whose name means “In him is strength”) is the go}el (“redeemer”) of Ruth and Naomi.  Jesus is our Bo’az, the one in whom is our strength.
2.  Reading 2 Ti 3:4-7:

When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
St. Paul’s words here: “kindness,” “generous love,” “mercy”—are Greek equivalents of Hebrew terms like hesed, emunnah, tôv, associated with God’s faithfulness to his covenant.  As we celebrate the birth of Christ, St. Paul reminds us that we participate(d) in that birth by being ourselves reborn through baptism, so that we share in Jesus’ genealogy, and like him become heirs of David, but more importantly, “heirs” of God.
3.  Gospel Lk 2:15-20:

When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

This Gospel is a continuation of the Gospel for the Midnight Mass.  The shepherds set a paradigm of evangelization: to them the Good News is proclaimed; they come and experience it firsthand; they depart and share what they “had heard and seen” to others.  They do so with joy: “glorifying and praising God.”  The shepherds are model evangelists in the mode that Pope Francis describes in Evangelii Gaudium.  Why are we so often ineffective evangelists?  Because we haven’t deeply experienced Jesus ourselves: “heard and seen”; or we lose our joy in the face of the contradictions of this life and so cease to “glorify and praise.”

Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart,” serving as the Church’s model of contemplative prayer and lectio divina.  This phrase also probably indicates St. Luke’s source for his accounts of the birth of Christ. 

Mass During Christmas Day

The First Reading  (Is 52:7-10) and Psalm (Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6) are doxologies giving thanks to God for his wonderful deeds in creation and in salvation history.  Then we get two of the most theologically “heavy” texts in the entire New Testament:

2. The Second Reading is Heb 1:1-6:

Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say:
You are my son; this day I have begotten you? (Ps 2:7)
Or again:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me? (2 Sam 7:14)
And again, when he leads the firstborn into the world, he says:
Let all the angels of God worship him.
The Book of Hebrew is difficult to understand until you realize 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 first to angels, who transmitted it to Moses, who entrusted it’s administration to the Levitical priesthood for the rest of time.  This explains why Hebrews 1-2 shows Jesus superior to the angels, Hebrews 3-4 demonstrates his superiority to Moses, and Hebrews 5-10 shows his superiority to the 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.

This reading from Hebrews combines an emphasizes Jesus role in creation (“through whom he created the universe”) with Jesus’ role as heir of the Davidic covenant.  The author quotes two of the most important Davidic covenant texts (Ps 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14) about the divine sonship of the heir of David in order to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels.  There is a theme throughout Scripture that God’s promises and covenant to creation (Genesis 1–2) are as firm as his promises and covenant to David (2 Sam 7:11-17).  We see this in Jeremiah 33, where the covenant with Creation and with David are explicitly correlated, and in Psalm 89, which juxtaposes doxology to God for his glory in creation with doxology for his fidelity to David.  The point is: in Jesus, natural history and salvation history  flow together.  Benedict XVI makes this point in the first chapters of his post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini

3. Gospel Jn 1:1-18:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.

But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’”
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

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.  Note how both Matthew (“the Book of the Genealogy,” cf. Gen 5:1) and John (“In the beginning was the Word,” cf. Gen 1:1) begin their Gospels with allusions to Genesis.

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.  This Son of God is better than the first one.  The first one 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 (as in the Second Reading from the Dawn Mass), made it possible for us to be born anew, afresh, again (John 3:5-8), innocent, like at the dawn of creation.

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

And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us …

St. John literally says, and tabernacled (eskeœnoœsen) among us, employing the Greek verb that corresponds to the noun tabernacle used in the Old Testament for the tent-dwelling of God constructed by Moses.  Jesus is being likened to the Tabernacle: he is the sanctuary, our place of worship that accompanies us on our journey through the desert of this life, sustained by bread from heaven (manna-Eucharist) and water from the rock (baptism). 

One of the three great pilgrimage feasts of Ancient Israel was the Feast of Tabernacles, the celebration of God’s sanctuary.  In Jesus’ day, it was arguably the most impressive liturgical celebration in Jerusalem, and some of the most important events in the Gospel of John take place during this feast (see John 7–9), which was marked by rituals involving light and water (see John 7:37-39; 8:12).  The Christian feast that corresponds to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles is, in fact, Christmas, because Christmas celebrates the creation of the New Sanctuary (cf. John 2:21), the Body of Christ, in whom God dwells, just as the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle of old (Exodus 40:34-38). 

Merry Christmas!


Nick said...

WIthout extrabiblical info on when Zecharish served and when John was conceived, the dating of the Nativiy is impossible. See:

* Emperor Cesaur, 27 BC -14 AD
* Herod the Great, 37-4 BC
* Gov. Quinnius, 6-7 AD
* Quinn. census, 10 BC
* Zechariah, Priest of Abjah
* John the Baptist, six months after his conception Mary conceives Jesus
* Jesus' 30yo Baptism
** Emperor Tiberus, 14-37 AD
** Pontius Pilate, 26-36 AD
** Herod Antipas, 4 BC - 39 AD
** Philip & Lysanas, 4 BC - 34 AD

Vince C said...

Thanks for taking the time to put this together on such a busy week, Dr. Bergsma. Your reflections (and those of Dr. Barber) on the Sunday Readings are always helpful in the extreme. Have a blessed Christmas.