Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Readings for the Day

It's almost here!  I thought I would post on the Readings for Christmas Day at Dawn and Noon:

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 (Isa 62:1-5), and to understand it’s purpose, we should read that passage first and ponder its relationship with this one:
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.
Now, at Dawn on Christmas, we move on to a further elaboration on these themes in our First Reading:
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.
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.  He is both redeemer, bridegroom, and king, come to wed his nature to our own.
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 (see the Gospel for the Vigil Mass), 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 33:15ff, 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. Here's an excerpt from §13:
Calling to mind these essential elements of our faith, we can contemplate the profound unity in Christ between creation, the new creation and all salvation history. To use an example, we can compare the cosmos to a “book” – Galileo himself used this example – and consider it as “the work of an author who expresses himself through the ‘symphony’ of creation. In this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo’, a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus. … The Son of Man recapitulates in himself earth and heaven, creation and the Creator, flesh and Spirit. He is the centre of the cosmos and of history, for in him converge without confusion the author and his work.

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!

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