Sunday, December 31, 2017

Readings for Mary, Mother of God

January 1 is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God.  To call Mary the “Mother of God” must not be understood as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  The Council of Ephesus in 431—long before the schisms with the Eastern churches and the Protestants—proclaimed “Mother of God” a theologically correct title for Mary. 

So far from being a cause of division, the common confession of Mary as “Mother of God” should unite all Christians, and distinguish Christian orthodoxy from various confusions of it, such as Arianism (the denial that Jesus was God) or Nestorianism (in which Mary mothers only the human nature of Jesus but not his whole person).

Two themes are present in the Readings for this Solemnity: (1) the person of Mary, and (2) the name of Jesus.   Why the name of Jesus? Prior to the second Vatican Council, the octave day of Christmas was the Feast of the Holy Name, not Mary Mother of God.  The legacy of that tradition can be seen in the choice of Readings for this Solemnity.  (The Feast of the Holy Name was removed from the calendar after Vatican II; St. John Paul II restored it as an optional memorial on January 3.  This year it is not observed in the U.S., because Epiphany falls on January 3. In the U.S. this year, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God is not a holy day of obligation, because it falls on a Monday.)

1.  The First Reading is Numbers 6:22-27

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Readings for Holy Family Sunday

The Sunday that falls in the Octave of the Solemnity of Christmas is dedicated to celebrating the Holy Family.  The Readings for this Sunday focus on the rights and responsibilities of family members toward each other, and the Gospel focuses on the role of the “most forgotten” member of the Holy Family, St. Joseph, who cared for and protected the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus through the dangerous early years of Jesus’ childhood.

The Lectionary provides different reading options for this Sunday: the celebrant may opt for the “standard” (ABC) readings, or choose the more recently proposed readings for Year B.  (The USCCB website provides both, although not the standard (ABC) Gospel Reading, for some reason.)  It what follows, we will try to cover all the options:

1.  The First Reading (ABC) is Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14:

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Readings for Christmas

I'm putting up my annual commentary on the Christmas Readings already, lightly edited from previous years.  The comments on the Fourth Sunday of Advent are the post below.

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

Israel's "King Arthur": The 4th Sunday of Advent

T.H. White wrote a fantasy novel about King Arthur in the 1950s called “The Once and Future King,” which my English class was assigned to read in 8th grade.  The title comes from the legendary Latin inscription on Arthur’s tomb, Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus: “Here lies Arthur, king at one time, and king to be.”

For the ancient Israelites, David was their “Arthur”: a king of fame and renown, to whom God had made great promises, and whose return they expected.

The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are strongly set up to show Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of the covenant promises to King David of old.  In fact, the First Reading and Psalm are without doubt the two most important chapters of the Old Testament concerning the Davidic covenant: 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89.

The First Reading is the basic account of God’s grant to David of a covenant of kingship:

Reading 1 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
"Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!"
Nathan answered the king,
"Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you."
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?'

"'It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make your name great, like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever."

The Davidic covenant is the last and climactic divine covenant recorded in the Old Testament.  Prior to David, covenants had been made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and all Israel (through Moses).  The Davidic covenant is, in a sense, a fulfillment of all of these: David is a successor of the Patriarchs Adam, Noah, and Abraham; and a sacred embodiment and representative (as king) of all Israel.  It is hard to overemphasize the importance of God’s covenant with David to the theology of the Old Testament: it’s influence is pervasive in the historical books, the psalms, and the prophets.  Essentially, outside the Pentateuch, the Old Testament is largely “the David channel.”  

Raymond Brown has a famous quote on the significance of the Davidic covenant and kingdom in Christian theology:

The story of David brings out all the strengths and weaknesses of the beginnings of the religious institution of the kingdom for the people of God. . . .  The kingdom established by David . . . is the closest Old Testament parallel to the New Testament church. . . . To help Christians make up their mind on how the Bible speaks [to church issues] it would help if they knew about David and his kingdom, which was also God’s kingdom and whose kings, with all their imperfections, God promised to treat as “sons” (2 Sm. 6:14).[1]

Now, back to the First Reading: the context is that David has firmly established the kingdom of Israel in his own hands, and now turns his attention to enhancing the worship of the LORD.  He desires to build God a house, that is, a temple; but God instead replies that he will build David a house, that is, a dynasty.  There is a wordplay in this famous chapter on the Hebrew term “house.”  A reciprocal relationship is set up between the House of David and the House of God.  God will build David’s House (dynasty), but David’s House (dynasty) will build the House of God.  Ultimately, in the mystery of God’s providence, the House of David and the House of God are going to become one reality.  The dynasty and the Temple are going to become one person (John 2:21), and by extension, one people (Eph 2:12-22).

The Responsorial Psalm is one of the most pivotal psalms in the entire psalter, the last psalm of Book III, which praises God for his covenant faithfulness to David.  Notice how both the Psalm and the First Reading emphasize the Father-Son relationship between David (and his heirs) and God.  A covenant establishes kinship—a family relationship.  Thereafter, the covenant partners may be called by familial terms: usually either Father-Son (for a non-reciprocal covenant) or Brother-Brother (for a parity covenant):

Responsorial Psalm Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
R. (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, "My kindness is established forever";
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R. 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.
"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.

The Second Reading drives home the point that Christ’s birth was not an unexpected novum in the history of the world, but rather was the culmination of a divine plan “manifested through the prophetic writings” (for example, the readings from Isaiah over the past several ferial [weekday] masses):

Reading 2 Rom 16:25-27
Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen

The Gospel is the account of the Annunciation, and there is no end of what we could say about this beautiful passage, especially if we began to unpack its Mariological significance.  Nonetheless, in the context of these Readings, we want to highlight the Davidic Covenant themes.  Note that Mary is espoused to Joseph “of the house of David.”  Bargil Pixner, the great Benedictine archeologist and bible scholar, argues that Nazareth was a small community settled by Davidides (descendants of the royal house) in the post-exilic period and named “Nazareth” (“little branch or shoot”) after the promises of the nezer (“branch”) of David who was to come according to Isaiah 11:1.

Note, too, that almost all the substance of Gabriel’s message to Our Blessed Mother in vv. 32-33 (“He will be great … and of his kingdom there will be no end”) is “taken” directly from 2 Samuel 7.  Gabriel is telling Mary that her child will fulfill all the promises made to David of old. 

There is even temple, or at least sanctuary, imagery in this Gospel reading, as Gabriel tells Our Mother that “the Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” using a rare Greek word episkiazo employed to describe the cloud of God’s presence which filled the Tabernacle in Ex. 40:35.  Mary is becoming a kind of new Tabernacle of the Presence of God.  We could say that the sanctuary-nature of Christ, who is both House of David and House of God, is being communicated to Mary by association.  As such, Our Mother is a type and icon of the Church, which also shares the sanctuary-nature of her Lord:

Gospel Lk 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.

Of course, the docile submission of Our Mother to God’s word—a word that will involve a share in her Son’s suffering (Luke 2:35), but also a share in his glory (8:17)—is held up as an example for us all.

I used to preach on this text as a Protestant pastor each advent.  Although I was taught by my seminary professors (peace and good will to all of those excellent men) not to preach sermons focused on biblical characters as moral examples (I forget why exactly this was wrong), nonetheless, every year, after doing all my proper exegetical steps, I always came to the same conclusion: the author of this Gospel text is intentionally holding up the Blessed Mother as a moral example for his readership.

Obedience to God’s word is also going to mean both suffering and glory for us.  Let’s embrace it with the docility and submission that our society finds so resists.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “Communicating the Divine and Human in Scripture,” Origins 22.1 (May 14, 1992) 5-6, emphasis mine.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rejoice! It’s Gaudete Sunday! (3th Sun. of Advent)

Rejoice, everybody!  This Sunday we light the rose-colored (not pink!) candle of the Advent wreath, as a sign of our joy that we have passed the mid-point of Advent.  During this penitential season (are you practicing a small penance?) in anticipation of the coming of Our Lord, we take a break from our practices of self-denial this Sunday in order to celebrate that Christmas is drawing near!

The Readings for this Sunday are unified by the theme of rejoicing, and they provide a good meditation on the role of joy in the Christian life.  Perhaps a line from the first Reading best sums up the message of the Scriptures this Sunday: “God is the joy of my soul.”  How true this is!  How often we are tempted to put something else into the “God” slot in that statement: “________ is the joy of my soul.”  How do we fill in the blank?  Money?  Success?  Caffeine/Alcohol/some other drug?  Sex?  Football?  Some other sport? A hobby?  This Sunday is time to rejoice for all those who put “God” in the blank.

1.  Our First The First Reading is Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11:

Monday, December 11, 2017

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Immaculate Conception!

This Friday is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in the United States, since it is the patronal feast day of our nation.  (Have you ever pondered that the irony in the fact that our capital is a little square of territory nestled in the heart of “Mary-land”?)

The Readings for this Solemnity are extremely rich, and include two famous passages (the account of the curses of after the fall in Genesis 3; and the Annunciation in Luke 1) that are pivotal in salvation history and touch on mega-themes in biblical theology.  Mary is at the heart of the story of salvation; understanding her and her role properly entails understanding the divine economy (salvation history) properly as well.

The First Reading is from Genesis 3:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Staying Alert: 1st Sunday of Advent

The last month of the liturgical year was spent reflecting on the Last Things, culminating in the Feast of Christ the King last week, when we pondered the Final Judgment, the separation of the “sheep” and the “goats.”

There is actually a fairly smooth transition from the end of the liturgical year to its beginning, because the first week of Advent is spent meditating not on the First Coming of Christ, but on his Second. By next week, the perspective will shift, and the liturgy will anticipate the coming celebration of the incarnation.
In any event, although it is a new liturgical year this week, the end-times focus of previous weeks continues.

Reading 1 Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7:

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Second Coming of Christ: Stay Awake! (The Mass Readings Explained)

I want to thank all of your who spent this past year studying the Gospel of Matthew with me. It's been a great journey, but with Advent right around the corner, today we begin our new Video Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark! 

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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Congratulations, everyone!  God has seen fit to let us live to complete another liturgical year!  We have journeyed with Our Lord from his birth through his ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and into the growth of the Church and the spread of the Gospel to all the nations.  Now, at the end of the year, we reflect on the Final Judgment, when Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, will pass sentence on each and every human being, establishing justice, punishing evil and rewarding love and self-sacrifice.  The Feast of Christ the King is a profession of our faith that ultimately there is a moral standard to the universe, that all is not in flux or random, that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful triumph in the end over darkness, ugliness, and selfishness. 

Our First Reading comes from Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Faithfulness in the Little Things: The 33rd Sunday in OT

St. Josemaría Escrivà, the founder of the personal prelature
Opus Dei, has often been called the “saint of the ordinary” for the emphasis he placed on achieving holiness in every-day living.

In fact, one of his most famous sermons was entitled “The Richness of Ordinary Life.”

St. Josemaría once said he could tell a great deal about a man’s interior life by looking in his closet.  Good order in one’s soul is often reflected by good order in one’s lifestyle.  A man who is sloppy or inattentive in the care of his personal effects will often likewise be careless in his life of prayer.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Parable of the Talents (The Mass Readings Explained)

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Thursday, November 09, 2017

Waiting for the Party to Start: 32nd Sunday in OT

Many years ago I worked in a cafeteria in northern Virginia with a large group of people who mostly knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood.  Around the 4th of July, they all decided to have a party, and out of politeness invited me, even though I was a bit of a stranger.  They told me the party would start at “six” and I dutifully showed up at six sharp with a dish to pass.  Little did I know that, in the local culture, things tended to start about two hours after the stated time.  It was a lot like what we used to call “Hawaiian time” when I lived on Oahu.  Anyhow, I was the only one there at 6pm, and by 7:30 I had eaten my own dish and was hanging around with still just 2 or 3 other people.  I ended up going home before the party ever really got going.

In the Gospel Reading for this Lord’s Day, we have five young women who, like me, weren’t prepared to wait for the party to start.  The Readings are full of images of the wise person who is prepared for the “long haul”—that is, to endure to the end and to stand upright before God at the final judgment.

1. Our First Reading is taken from the Book of Wisdom:

Monday, November 06, 2017

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Good Leaders for God's People: 31st Sunday in OT

Some years ago at Franciscan University, we had Alexandre Havard on campus to speak about virtuous leadership.  His fine talk is on You Tube here.

We've also been blessed with visits by Andreas Widmer, another leadership expert, based on his experiences as a Swiss Guard during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II.  He has an excellent book, The Pope and the CEO.

These men of leadership came to my mind this week as I pondered the Sunday Readings, because virtuous leadership for the people of God is the unifying theme of these Scriptures.

Our First Reading comes from the prophet Malachi, who prophesied to the people of Judah during the post-exilic period, after they had returned from the Babylonian exile.  Although restored to their land, the people of Israel were forbidden to establish their hereditary king of the line of David.  They were still ruled politically by the Persian emperor or his representatives.  In this situation, the priesthood seems to have come to the fore once more, and taken a more active role in governing the people, as it had done in earlier times in Israel’s history, and as the Law of Moses had intended.

Unfortunately, the priests in post-exilic Judah were abusing their authority, as we see in this reading: 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Call No Man "Father" (The Mass Readings Explained)

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Of Law and Love: Readings for 30th Week of OT

How does love relate to law?  The two can seem opposed, a contrast to one another.  Love is a romantic dinner for two on a veranda overlooking the Seine.  Law is a solemn old man in a black robe, sitting behind a high podium with police officers at his side. 

The Readings for this Sunday insist that law and love, as strange as it may seem, are ultimately united.  Without love, law is cold.  Without law, love is mere emotion.  The Readings show the unity of the Old and New Testaments in pointing to the love of God as the highest law.

1.  Our First Reading is from the Book of Exodus:

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Two Greatest Commandments (The Mass Readings Explained)

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Religion and Politics: Readings for the 29th Week of OT

Religion and politics are a volatile mix, such that the old dictum was, these were the two topics one should not raise in polite conversation.  

The readings for this Sunday are concerned, in part, with the interaction of religion and politics, in the rule of God vs. the rule of men.  The Scriptures affirm that despite appearances to the contrary, ultimate control of human history is in the hands of God.  Human rulers have their place, but even they are ultimately instruments by which God guides human affairs.  In the midst of the chaos that is human politics, we cannot become distracted from the true goal of human life, which is union with God.  

The First Reading is taken from the second part of Isaiah: Is 45:1, 4-6:

Monday, October 16, 2017

Jesus, Caesar, and God (The Mass Readings Explained)

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

All Dressed Up: The 28th Sunday in OT

The standard of dress at Mass has declined in recent years.  People show up looking like their ready for the beach or a football game.  Some pastors are calling attention to this problem.  I agree—I’m all for encouraging modesty and taste in the way we physically dress for worship.

But our external dress is not the main point of this Sunday’s Readings.

What kind of “clothing” does the King see us dressed in at Mass this weekend?

Our readings for this week begin with Isaiah’s famous prophecy of a feast on Mount Zion:

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The NEW Mass Readings Explained: Year B

If you would like to subscribe to the NEW Mass Readings Explained for Year B, which will begin in Advent and walk through the Mass Readings for next liturgical year in the Gospel of Mark, check out Catholic Productions' site where they are running a pre-subscriber special.  Thank you all.

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