The first day of the New Year brings with it many thoughts, feelings
and emotions. The fact that it is January and named after the Roman god Janus
with two faces already indicates that it brings with it a looking back and a
Thus it is a day for
retrospection and introspection and also a day for planning and goal setting.
The retrospection must be with a view to help the planning and goal setting and
not an exercise in condemnation of oneself or feeling regret.
It is fitting then that the first reading of today should speak of a
blessing. The blessing is what is commonly called a Priestly blessing and
pronounced on all the people of Israel. There are three pairs of verbs used in
the blessing resulting in a threefold blessing. The first emphasizes concrete
gifts—blessing and protection. The second stresses the hope that God will be
well disposed toward the person and thus temper judgement with mercy and grace.
The third asserts that God will pay attention and heed to his people thus
providing fullness of life. The central message of the blessing is Peace, which
must be translated as wholeness or completeness. The peace of God embraces
every aspect of an individual’s life.
The idea of blessing is taken up in the Second reading of today. Paul
in writing to the Galatians speaks of the blessing that God conferred not just
on Israel but on the whole world when he sent his Son. The sending of the Son
was for one reason alone, namely to reconcile the world to himself and through
that to make each of us sons and daughters of God. The Son that God sent in to
the world was not an angel but born of a woman, Mary who dared to say that
unconditional yes to God’s invitation to be the mother of his Son.
This son whom God sent is human in every single aspect of the word and
is therefore circumcised and given a name. The name that the child bears
signifies his function. He is named Jesus because he will save his people from
their sins. This child will be king, but a new kind of king. He will inaugurate
a new world order, a world not like that of earthly kings but under the
direction of God’s design for the redemption of all peoples. In this world,
God’s Word is heard by all who remain open to that Word. In this world, there
is hope for the oppressed, and those who heard what God is doing are filled
with joy. God has not forgotten us or abandoned us to the brokenness we have
created. God continues to be concerned and to make new and whole. The New Year
thus, is for us as Christians, an announcement of hope. It is a call to
continue to believe that God continues to be in control of all the events that
will take place and that we only have to do what is required of us and leave
the rest to God.
Thus the triple celebration of Mary Mother of God, the giving of the
name of Jesus and New Year’s Day all close in on one theme: Hope. The past is
over and forgotten; it is forgiven and absolved; it is pardoned and made new. The
challenge is for us to respond like Mary did to what God is doing in us and in
our world. If we like Mary are open and receptive to the working of God in our
lives, if we like her are willing to let God do in us, if we like her are
willing to say that unconditional and categorical Yes, then the saviour Jesus will continue to be made present all through the year.
The priestly blessing of peace pronounced on the people in the first
reading of today becomes then a blessing pronounced on each of us as we begin the
New Year. We must keep in mind throughout the year that like the Galatians we
are no longer slaves but sons and daughters of God. This means living in a
fearless and bold manner. It means being able to face all the vicissitudes and
challenges of life with equanimity and confident in the knowledge that we are
loved unconditionally by God and that God will be with us every step of the way
in the New Year.
prologue of the Gospel of John is an extremely rich text. Unlike Matthew and
Luke who begin their Gospels with stories of the birth of Jesus, the Gospel of
John begins with the pre-existent WORD and the relationship of the word to the
world. It is Word which is God and also an incarnate word, a word made flesh.
Thus the Prologue is concerned with the sphere of God, the eternal sphere and
the sphere of human beings the temporal.
prologue makes two main points.
of these is that the abstract, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable, the
unknowable, and the absolute mystery which is the Word and God, have become
concrete, comprehensible, decipherable, and knowable and a mystery revealed
because of the Word becoming flesh. However, this mystery is not as easy to
understand as it may seem. Many take offense at this. They want something more
spectacular; some divine figure, some hero or god-man, some fascinating,
mysterious being, able to impress everyone with the feats of might and glory.
But what they saw was only a man; a man of compassion, a man who claimed to
speak the truth. And they saw no glory here. But this is how God decided to
come. He wanted to be one of us in all our limitations. Thus no longer can we
say that our God could not understand what it is like to struggle against the
opposition, to have to flee to another country, to be betrayed by a friend, to
grieve the loss of a loved one, to fear suffering and death, to experience a
seeming absence of his father. No, our God has truly walked our walk; God's
Word of Love has truly taken flesh. Through this act of the Incarnation, God
and the Word have become Father and Son. God, the Father is revealed in the
Son, Jesus. Through this act, heaven has come down to earth and earth and
heaven are reconciled as never before. The incarnation means that human beings
can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. The relationship
between divine and human is transformed, because in the incarnation human
beings are given intimate, palpable, corporeal access to the cosmic reality of
God. The newness wrought by God in Jesus is so dramatic that a conventional
narrative of origins is good, but insufficient. That is because the story of
Jesus is not ultimately a story about Jesus; it is, in fact, the story of God.
When one sees Jesus, one sees God; when one hears Jesus, one hears God.
point that the prologue makes is the response of humanity to the incarnate
Word. Since the Word is not a Word that is thrust on creation, but given freely
and in total generosity, human beings must respond to the Word in freedom. This
response is either of acceptance or rejection. One cannot ignore the potent
power of the Word.
rejection of the Word by Jesus’ own people while being a historical fact is a
rejection that continues even today. Darkness continues to try to overcome the
light. This becomes evident when we look at our world which is a world in which
corruption, selfishness, injustice, intolerance, and communal disharmony,
racial and caste discriminations continue to raise their ugly heads. It is seen
when people still concern themselves with only the desire to have more rather
than be more. It is seen when the concern to accumulate for oneself even to the
detriment of not giving others their just due overpowers us.
despite this rejection of the Word, there is a note of hope and promise because
there continue to be people who will choose light over darkness and
selflessness over selfishness. There will continue to be people who fight for
justice and will never give up this cause. There will continue to be people who
will generously give not only of their wealth but also of themselves in
imitation of the one who became human and gave all. Those who opt for the light
can continue to do so because their openness to the Incarnate Word and all that
he stands for makes them receive grace upon grace from him. This abundance of
grace continues to sustain through the most trying times and gives them the courage
never to give up or give in, but to continue and carry on. God became what we
are, so that we could understand better what God is, and we could believe with
all our hearts that God understands what we are.
dare to accept the light and walk in its ways begin to realize that God himself
walks with them and ahead of them. They know that God does not stay distant
from them, remote and isolated; rather, in Jesus, God chose to live with
humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. This bond holds
true for all times and all places. To become flesh is to know joy, pain,
suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. The
incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness” of human experience. The Word
lived among us, not simply in the world. The Word became flesh and the Word’s
name is Jesus Christ. This Jesus continues to be born in our midst even today.
When selflessness triumphs over selfishness; when generosity triumphs over
greed; when light overcomes darkness, then Jesus is born again and again.
Luke is fond of pairing male
and female figures in his narrative. The role of Simeon and Anna in the Temple
at the end of the birth narrative balances the role of Zechariah and Elizabeth
at the beginning of the narrative. Anna’s character and piety are emphasized,
but not her words. She was a descendant of a family from the northern kingdom,
and a devout widow, advanced in age. Anna evidently married young and was
widowed seven years later. The reference to 84 years probably records her age,
but may be read as the number of years she had lived as a widow.
Anna’s blessing, though not
recorded, is characterized as praising God and speaking about the child. Since
this description corresponds to the content of Simeon’s oracles, we can
probably say that Anna’s prophecy matched his. Similarly, the reference to “all
who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” serves as an inclusion,
balancing the description of Simeon as one who was “looking forward to the
consolation of Israel” at the beginning of this scene. Simeon and Anna, who
represent the pious ones, declare that Jesus is the one who will bring
salvation for Israel, but not all would receive this salvation. Jesus himself
would be rejected, and many in Israel would reject the gospel, but it was also
meant for “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”.
The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach is one of the
seven books of the Old Testament considered as Apocryphal by Protestants, but
declared as divinely inspired by the Council of Trent in 1546. In the text
chosen for the feast of today, the author speaks about family relationships,
but addresses specifically children whom he urges to respect and honour their
parents. This kindness besides being remembered will also serve as reparation
In the text from Colossians, the author gives his
readers the motivation for living other centred lives: They are “God’s chosen
ones, holy and beloved”. Since the Lord has forgiven them, they also must
forgive. Above all else, they must clothe themselves with love.
The Gospel text for today omits 2:16-18 to focus on
Joseph and his response to God’s word in dreams. The response of Joseph to the
word of God is one of total obedience. However, by inserting what are termed as
formula or fulfilment quotations into the narrative which speak about Jesus
and not Joseph, Matthew’s real intention seems to be to reveal who Jesus is.
While there is surely a connection between the first
and second readings and the feast of the Holy Family because of the
exhortations to different members of a family, we may wonder why the text from
Matthew was chosen and what it has to do with today’s feast. However, when we
realize that even though at first glance Joseph seems to be at the centre of
the narrative, a little deeper reading brings out what Matthew seems to intend.
His intention seems to focus and centre on Jesus first through his quotation
from Hosea 11:1 “Out of Egypt have I called my son”, which in its original
context was applied to Israel, but is here applied to Jesus, and second through
his fourth formula quotation “He shall be called a Nazarene” not found in the
Old Testament, but through which he may have intended to refer to the Messianic
king promised in Isaiah 11, 1 which Isaiah refers to as a “branch” which in
Hebrew is nêzer. This intention of
Matthew seems to be the reason for the choice of the text and the point which
the church wants to make through the celebration of this feast namely: Every
Christian family can only be so in truth if it has Christ as its centre.
Thus the feast of the Holy Family is not so much
about the Family of Nazareth not even about our own families but about the
foundation on which our lives and the lives of our families are built. If our
families like the one at Nazareth
are built on the foundation that is Jesus Christ, then everything else will
fall into place. To build on Christ means first of all to regard him as the
centre of life itself. It means to realize that he too has gone through all the
difficulties and turmoil that we go through in our lives and so can understand and
identify with us. It means that like him we must continue to believe that no
matter what happens in our lives and no matter how heavy the cross we may be
called to bear, we have merely to do what is required of us and leave the rest
to God. To build on Christ means to continue to trust that all that happens
does so because it has been ordained by God and that he is always in control.
It means to dare to believe that God will never do anything that he knows is
not for our good even if we are not able to understand it fully at the time
when it does happen.
Once we do this and let our lives be guided by
Christ then it will be possible for children to respect their parents and not
despise them even if they are lacking in understanding and have not been able
to keep in touch with the changing times and for parents not to antagonize
their children, or have unrealistic expectations from them, not to compare them
with the neighbour’s children or even with each other in families in which
there is more than one child and be as Khalil Gibran advises in his book The
Prophet “the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth”.
Then it will possible for husbands and wives to love
each other unconditionally and be true to the commitment they made on their
marriage day, to be open to and flexible with each other and make changes that
may be required because of love.
Then it will possible for every member of the family
to be kind and humble, to be gentle and patient. Each will then be able to
forgive because of the example of forgiveness that Christ gives and because of
his/her own experience of forgiveness manifested in his unconditional love and
Gospel is the only one of the four which has the story of the killing of
innocent children by Herod. A king is born, but a king is already here; and
there is room for only one king. The birth of Jesus, the messianic king,
precipitates a conflict with the kingship already present in this world.
It is not
merely with the historical Herod with whom Matthew is concerned, however, but
with Herod as a character in the story, who serves as a foil for the kingdom of
God. When this Herod hears of the birth of the new king, he is “troubled”.
Matthew is not describing Herod’s psychology but the clash of two claims to
kingship that occurs in the advent of Jesus. Herod represents the resistance of
this world to the divine kingship represented by Jesus. When “all Jerusalem” is
troubled with him, this is not mere sympathy with or fear of Herod. Matthew is
again looking ahead to the passion story and implicating Judaism’s capital city
as a whole, not only its king, in the rejection of Jesus’ messianic claim.
asks the magi the chronological question “When?” to determine the time of
Jesus’ birth, he acts hypocritically, claiming that he too wants to worship,
but with murder in his heart.
slaughter of the innocents is in character with the historical Herod the Great,
who was ruthless in maintaining his grasp on power. There is no record of such
an act among the detailed records of Herod’s numerous atrocities, nor is it
reflected elsewhere in or out of the New Testament. The story seems to be part
of Matthew’s Moses typology, with Herod cast in the role of Pharaoh.
does not sentimentalize the tragedy of the innocent victims or speculate on how
the other mothers and fathers of Bethlehem might have interpreted the divine
decision to warn one family. His attention is fixed on this event as a
fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew does alter his usual formula in such
citations of Scripture from his usual “in order that”, and thus avoids saying
that the murders happened for the purpose of fulfilling Scripture.
third formula quotation in 2:18-19 is from Jer 31:15. In the New Testament only
Matthew explicitly mentions Jeremiah. Jeremiah 31:15 pictures Rachel, matriarch
of the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim (but not of Judah) weeping at Ramah for
her “children,” the Israelites, as they are led away captive to Babylon in
Jeremiah’s time. Ramah (in the area of Benjamin, five miles north of Jerusalem)
was chosen by Jeremiah because one tradition locates Rachel’s tomb there, at
the site where Nebuchadnezzar’s troops assembled captives for deportation (Jer
40:1). Another tradition locates Rachel’s tomb at Bethlehem. Matthew combines
these traditions to achieve the desired effect. The Jeremiah passage is in a
context of hope; it is not clear whether Matthew interprets contextually or
whether lamentation is the only note to be heard in this text. In any case, the
child Jesus recapitulates the experience of Israel.
Matthew’s day so in ours the war between the two kingdoms continues. Those who
regard power as absolute will continue to massacre the innocent. They will
continue to destroy others for selfish means. Our response has to be one of
courage and hope. Though some will have to suffer because of the selfishness
and egoism of a few, there are many more who live unselfish lives for the benefit
of others. If each of us were to perform one unselfish act every day, the world
becomes a better place for all.
whose feast we celebrate today is in the Gospels the brother of James. The
brothers were sons of Zebedee and were fishermen. John along with his brother
James and Peter were the trio who accompanied Jesus when he raised Jairus'
daughter and also on the mountain at the Transfiguration and in Gethsemane.
disciple who is a character only in the Gospel of John has often been
associated with the disciple and evangelist John. The Gospel text chosen for
the feast is from the Gospel of John and in which the beloved disciple figures.
The text speaks about the intuition and faith of the Beloved disciple. On being
told by Mary Magdalene that the Tomb in which Jesus lay was empty, he along
with Peter ran to the tomb. The beloved disciple saw and believed. He needed no
proof. The empty tomb and the words of Jesus before his death were proof enough
beloved disciple believed, is the evidence of the empty tomb: not merely that
the tomb was empty, but that its emptiness bore witness that Jesus has
conquered death and restored life.
The beloved disciple could not keep this revelation to himself and was inspired to share it with the whole world through his Gospel. The news was too good and too new to let it remain only within his heart.
Will you act like the beloved disciple and share the news of Jesus?
St Stephen is regarded as the first Christian
martyr. He was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles when there
was dissatisfaction about the distribution of alms. In the first reading of
today, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how Stephen was tried by the
Sanhedrin for blasphemy against Moses and God and also of speaking against the
Temple and the Law. He was tried, found guilty and stoned to death.
The Gospel text for the feast of today is part of
the Mission Discourse of Matthew. The sayings found in Matthew’s Mission
Discourse here are found in the Eschatological Discourse of Mark (Mk 13:9-13).
This is an indication that for Matthew, Mission is already eschatological and
this is proved through the life and death of Stephen. The punishment, which is
referred to here, is not random, but official punishment from members of
organised authority. Even in this difficult situation the disciples are offered
encouragement. They will depend not on their own strength, but on the Holy
Spirit. They are to be missionaries even in the courtroom. Their imprisonment
and trial must be regarded as an opportunity to make mission known. Mission
takes priority even over family ties and if family ties have to be broken
because of mission then so be it. The affirmation of the coming of the Son of
Man is probably meant to provide succour to the missionaries in their distress.
Stephen had not read the Mission Discourse and yet had
been influenced by the life, Mission and Death of his Master Jesus Christ. He
was also confident of the resurrection and of victory even in the face of
defeat and death. He knew that if he continued to stand for the truth, he would
indeed be victorious.
It is important to note that Stephen did not go
around looking for trouble nor did he desire martyrdom for the sake of dying
for Jesus. However, he was unafraid to stand for the truth even if it meant
giving up his life.
The Jesus who challenged Stephen is the same Jesus
who challenges us today. He is not calling us here to be sadists and look for
suffering, persecution and pain. Rather he is challenging us to go about doing
what we have to do, to be as prudent as possible about it and if despite that persecution,
suffering and pain come, to be prepared and ready for it and not to be afraid.
The birth of every child
brings the message that God wants the world to continue, that he is not yet fed
up with the ingratitude and sinfulness of the human race. In most cultures in
the world, the birth of a child is a cause for great rejoicing and celebration.
How much more profound and joyful must this celebration be if the child, born
in our midst, is the Son of God?
Christmas is the birth, not
merely of a child, but the birth of the child who would change the destiny of
humans forever. It is the celebration of the unconditional love of a gracious
and generous God who holds nothing back but gives of his very self. It is the
celebration of the fact that God wanted so much to be part of the human race
that he took on flesh and blood, and thus, became limited so that he could
reveal to us our own limitlessness.
This is what the second
reading from the letter to the Hebrews speaks about. Though God had been
constantly conversing with humanity from the beginning of creation, through
prophets and kings, through blessings and punishments, these did not seem to
have had the desired effect. Humanity, as a whole, moved further and further
away from God. Thus, in the fullness of time, God decided that the way to draw
people back to himself would be if he became one like them, in every aspect of
their being. This was so that he could feel with our feelings, think with our
thoughts and, in doing so, show us who we are meant to be.
The prologue of John, which
is the Gospel text for today, echoes this idea when, at the centre, it speaks
about the “logos” (the word) becoming “sarx” (flesh) and dwelling among us.
This means that the abstract, the indecipherable, the incomprehensible, and the
inconceivable, through one decisive act, become concrete, decipherable, comprehensible,
and conceivable. The impossible has become possible.
The possibilities that the
birth of Jesus have opened up are innumerable. No longer is humanity a
disadvantage or a limitation. No longer is humanity something to be looked down
upon or to be ashamed of. No longer is humanity weakness. After the birth of
Jesus, humanity takes on a new look and a new meaning. Now, there are no
limits. Now, humanity need not be confined.
Now, there are no restrictions on how far we can go. Jesus has shown the way.
However, even as this is
true, there is another, and sad, side to the story. The prologue explains it by
stating that “the darkness tried to overcome the light”, and “he came unto his
own, but his own received him not”. Surprising, astounding, and startling as
this may sound, it was true of the time when Jesus came. It continues to be true even today. Darkness
constantly tries to overcome light.
Why would darkness try to
overcome the light? Why would his own not receive him? The answer to these
questions can be found in the person of Jesus and all for which he stands.
First, when he came, he did not come as many were expecting, in pomp, in splendour,
and in glory. He did not come, as many would have wanted, mounted on a horse.
He did not choose to be born in a palace, as kings usually are. He came in
humility, in nothingness, and in total helplessness. He came in the form of a
child. This kind of a God seemed, and still seems, an aberration to some and
they cannot, they will not, accept him. Second, in a world where authority is
interpreted as domination and where rulers expect to be served and not to serve,
Jesus’ approach of interpreting authority as service, and his desire to serve
and not be served, was regarded as an anomaly. Third, when all logic seems to
point to the fact that it is better to have more and accumulate as much as one
can for oneself rather than share with others, the life of Jesus, a life spent
for the well being of others, was an abnormality. In other words, when Jesus
came, he did not fit the pre-conceived and stereotyped notions that people had.
He was different, and difference, because it may not be understood, is often rejected.
Yet, despite this rejection
of the Word, there is a note of hope and promise. There continue to be people who will choose
light over darkness, who will choose selflessness over selfishness. There will
continue to be people who will fight for justice and will never give up this
cause. There will continue to be people who will generously give, not only of
their wealth, but also, of themselves, in imitation of the one who became human
and gave all. Those who opt for the light can continue to do so because their
openness to the Incarnate Word and all that he stands for makes them open to receive
grace upon grace from him. This abundance of grace continues to sustain them through
the most trying times. It gives them the
courage never to give up or to give in, but to continue and carry on.
By taking on our humanity,
Jesus has shown us that we can be divine. He has shown us how far we can go,
even in our humanity. We can love more, we can dare more, we can believe more,
and we can be more. Nothing is now outside the scope of our humanity which,
after the birth of Jesus, is no longer a limitation but an advantage. The
oracle of Isaiah, composed towards the end of the exile, and which announces
the return of the exiles to Jerusalem,
finds its fulfilment in the birth of Jesus. Captivity and limitation have come
to an end. Now, only freedom and limitlessness are real.
Thus, Christmas is not
merely the celebration of a historical birth that took place over two thousand
years ago. It is about becoming conscious of who we really are as human beings.
It is the celebration of life in all its fullness. It is the celebration of the
transformation of limit to limitlessness, of selfishness to selflessness, of
bondage to freedom, and of fear to unconditional love.
Those who dare to accept the
light and walk in its ways begin to realize that God, himself, walks with them
and ahead of them. They know that God does not stay distant from them, remote
and isolated. Rather, they know that, in
Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness,
confusion, and pain. This bond holds true for all times and all places. To
become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to
grieve, and someday, to die. The incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness”
of human experience. The Word lived among us, not simply in the world. The Word
became flesh and the Word’s name is Jesus Christ. This Jesus continues to be
born in our midst, even today. When selflessness triumphs over selfishness,
when generosity triumphs over greed, and when light overcomes darkness, then is
Jesus born, again, and again, and every day is Christmas.
The Introduction and the Entrance Antiphon of
today’s liturgy makes clear that for those who celebrate Christmas the word of
God is no longer merely the message spoken by the prophets, but the messenger
of God in person. The Word of God is a child born for us on whose shoulder
dominion will be laid. This is seen clearly in the readings that have been
chosen for today.
In the first reading from the Second Book of Isaiah
which is a prophetic oracle of salvation, the prophet announces through a
messenger the return of the exiles to Jerusalem.
had experienced war, destruction and sorrow will now experience peace, unity
and happiness. This is the good news that is proclaimed.
The letter to the Hebrews takes up the theme of the
good news spoken through God’s word in a variety of ways. In the old days, this
was spoken through the prophets, but in the now, the new days God will not
content himself with merely speaking through intermediaries but speaks through
a part of himself when he speaks through his son. His speaking is definitive
not because God will not speak again, but because in Jesus, God has said all
that he would want to say. God will not need to speak like this anymore.
This is also the theme of the prologue of the Gospel
of John. However, John puts it even more elaborately than Hebrews does. Jesus
is here described as the one who was with God from all eternity, who was, is
and will be divine. This
Word “became flesh and dwelt among us.” But again this totally other
"Word" has a history and a purpose. He comes into the world as
life and light. He asks to be accepted in faith. His own did not
accept him; throughout history he offers himself to all of good will.
Those who do accept him he empowers to become children of God, to have a new
birth, to be born of God in the new birth of the Spirit.
The impossible has become possible, the totally incomprehensible
has become somewhat comprehensible and our humanity is never again to be seen
as a limitation but as an advantage. We have been blessed with a new and
radiant vision. God could not be seen, but now in Jesus he is visible.Our God is not a God out there or up
there, but a God who is with us and for us and showed us this in the unique and
astounding way of becoming like us. We share through the Incarnation in the
very life of God. Our cry after the Incarnation is not a plaintive “I’m only
human”, but an exuberant, “I’m human”. This is what Christmas means and this is
what the birth of the Christ child is saying. Before the Incarnation of Jesus,
we human beings thought we could be only this brave, but the Incarnation has
shown that we can be braver. Before the Incarnation we thought we could only love
so much, but the Incarnation has shown that we can love even more and to the
very end. Before Jesus’ incarnation we human beings thought we could be only so
much, but the Incarnation of God shows us that we can be more. We have become
through the incarnation, children, women and men of the Magis, the greater, the
more. The Incarnation has made each of us aware of the immense potential that
exists in us because we have been graced through the humanity of the divinity.
Christ became human to show us that even in our humanity we can become divine.
The Incarnation does not simply invite us to be good men and women, rather through
the Incarnation; Jesus makes us into people who can use all their strengths and
defects to the service and the glory of God. This is the proof to us that it is
not by our own will power that we are able to become children of God. It is by
God's grace, by God's unmerited and unconditional love of us.
Thus, Christmas is not merely the celebration of a
historical birth or a birth that took place over two thousand years ago. It is
about becoming conscious of who we really are as human beings. It is the
celebration of life in all its fullness. It is the celebration of the
transformation of limit to limitlessness, of selfishness to selflessness, of
bondage and fear to freedom and unconditional love.
Christmas belongs not only to a few who call
themselves Christians but to the entire earth. The lowly animals, birds,
plants, trees indeed the whole of nature participates in this nativity of the
divine light at Christmas. Our compassion for our human brothers and sisters is
increased when we realize that the animals, birds, plants, trees and the rest
of nature is also made up of wondrous beings in even more humble, limited and
unrecognizable form than ourselves.
As the Logos (Word) descends into the earth and
becomes sarx (flesh) to bring Light to the world, we realize that it is in and
through this Light that we have life.
Zechariah’s song, which is traditionally called “The
Benedictus” (Blessed), is the text which the Church reads on the day before
Christmas. It may be seen to be divided into two parts. The first part praises
God for his messianic deliverance and the second speaks of John the Baptist’s
role in this deliverance. The
progression of thought in the Benedictus shows that the true end of God’s
redemption is not merely deliverance from political domination, but the
creation of conditions in which God’s people can worship and serve God without
fear. When people are released from external domination, they can worship in
peace. The people of God are a covenant people, saved and rescued by the hand
of God. God has thereby fulfilled the
promises to Abraham and to David. Holiness and righteousness are to mark God’s
people “all the days of our life”. The hymn comes to a climax as it describes
the place of John in God’s redemptive work. John’s birth announced God’s new
deliverance. John would be a prophet who would go before the Lord. Four infinitives outline the progress of
God’s redemptive work. The first two describe the role of John the Baptist. The
last two allude to the inauguration of the kingdom, “when the day shall dawn
upon us from on high”.
The mark of the redeemed is that they live out of
the knowledge of God that has been given to them. Darkness is dispelled by the
revelation of God’s being and God’s grace toward us. Finally, through John’s
call for justice and righteousness, and far more through Jesus’ unique
ministry, God would “guide our feet into the way of peace”
The Benedictus links the promise of salvation and
redemption inseparably to the achievement of peace. God’s people cannot have
redemption without peace, for each is necessary for the realization of the
other. It affirms that God’s purposes are being fulfilled in the delivering of
his people from the hands of their oppressors. Their feet are being guided in
the way of peace so that they may worship without fear.
Two days before the birth of the Messiah, the Church
invites us to reflect on the birth, naming, and circumcision of his precursor
or forerunner, John the Baptist.
Luke does not give us too many details about the
birth of John, and he narrates it with a short sentence. He focuses more on the
events that follow the birth and, through them, show that God’s word spoken
through the angel, Gabriel, is being fulfilled. Elizabeth does bear a son and
the people rejoice at the birth because of the great mercy shown by God.
Circumcision of the child on the eight day was in
accord with Gen 17:9-14 where God makes circumcision on the eight day a sign of
the covenant with Abraham. It was the father who normally named the child and,
in doing so, recognized the child as his own. Sometimes, the child was named
after the father, especially if the father was a person who was highly
esteemed. Objections were raised to the name “John” (“God had been gracious”),
chosen by Elizabeth. That the people made signs to Zechariah to ask him what he
wanted to name the child indicates that, besides being dumb, he was also deaf.
The moment Zechariah writes the name “John” on a writing tablet, Zechariah
regains his speech. Once again, God’s word comes to pass. The fear and
amazement with which the people respond to these happenings is an indication
that they experienced God’s awesome power. The question that the people ask,
about what the child would turn out to be, is answered in summary form by Luke
when he ends this narrative by stating that “the hand of the Lord was with
God’s word is a word of power and will come to pass,
no matter how many obstacles we may put in its way. It is a word that enhances
and builds up, a word that gives life. To be sure, we may not always be able to
understand and accept it for what it is, but in the final analysis, it is
always a word that is for our good and for his glory.
The meeting between Isaiah
and King Ahaz is the second meeting between the two. The first was when God
asked Isaiah to go to Ahaz with the message that he remains calm and not let
his courage fail him before Rezin the king of Damascus
and Pekah the king of Samaria
who wanted to replace Ahaz with Ben Tabeel. In this second meeting, the
reluctance of the king to ask for a sign is interpreted by Isaiah as a failure
of faith, an unwillingness to be reassured by God. Thus the sign will be given
even though unasked for. The sign will be the child that Ahaz’s wife Abiyah was
carrying in her womb who was King Hezekiah (some think the reference is to the
third child of Isaiah). However, though he began well with religious reforms,
Hezekiah gradually turned away from the Lord and so the people began to look
for another Emmanuel.
In the opening section of
his letter to the Romans, Paul makes two main points after describing himself
as servant and apostle of Christ and specially chosen to preach the good news that
God had promised long ago. The first is that the good news is about the Son of
God, and descendant of David who was born in human nature and was truly man and
who was proclaimed Son of God through his resurrection from the dead. The
second is the call to the addresses to belong to Christ.
The Gospel text is from the Infancy Narrative
of Matthew and contains the prophecy of Isaiah found in the first reading of
today which here is applied to Jesus. Matthew uses Joseph’s dream as a tool
with which to answer questions that may have risen about the virginal
conception of Jesus. Since Matthew’s intention is to show Jesus as a descendant
of David the focus in his story is on Joseph who in Matthew is a descendant of
David. Jesus, who is Son of David, is also Son of God as indicated by the
virginal birth and the one who will save all people from sin. In this he is
Emmanuel, God with us, not in judgement but grace.
As feast of Christmas draws
near we are invited through the readings to reflect on the meaning of the birth
and significance of the name of the God/Man Jesus. Both Matthew and Paul
emphasize that Jesus is both God and man. He is God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Matthew
goes through great pains to show Jesus clearly as a descendant of David (and so
his humanity) but at the same time insists that the Christ child is not really
Joseph’s child but conceived through the Holy Spirit (and so his divinity).
Paul too seems to have this in mind when writing to the Romans as is shown in
his description of the human nature of Jesus and his being a descendant of
David, but who is at the same time Son of God through his resurrection from the
dead. The point that both seem to want to make is that God has acted decisively
in history and through his personal action has caused something new in our
world that goes beyond human comprehension.
This decisive action of God
was intended to convey to all who encounter him that God is Emmanuel and that
his function is to save people from their sin and even each one of us from ourselves.
This is what we must keep in mind as we continue our preparations. He is the
long cherished hope of all peoples. He is the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled
completely. Even if Hezekiah was not able to live up to what was predicted of
him, it does not really matter because Jesus has more than made up for the
Having as God, a God who
saves and, through his incarnation (and so real death and resurrection) is the
news that Paul proclaims to the Church in Rome
and that is still proclaimed in the Church today. The implications of this are
many. The first is that we need never fear God since he is God with and for us,
and our response to him must only be a response of love. The second is that we
do not have to do anything nor can we do anything to obtain the love of God. It
is given freely simply because God wants to. All we have to do is receive it
with openness and humility. This leads to a third implication which is
accepting that each of us is a sinner and so in need of the saving grace of God.
Once we accept this reality then we become more accepting towards others
because we realize that we are in the same situation as they are. We are not
better than they. We also become more aware of the responsibility that each of
us has to reach out in making the other whole and show that we do indeed belong
The text of today, which concerns Mary’s visit to
Elizabeth, is also the scriptural basis for the second Joyful mystery of the
Since the angel does not ask Mary to visit
Elizabeth, or even suggest it, the alacrity with which Mary goes to visit
Elizabeth expresses clearly that Mary trusted the angel’s word. Mary’s greeting
of Elizabeth results in a sign which is that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps
and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. This could also indicate that the
announcement of the angel to Zechariah that their child would be filled with
the Holy Spirit is being fulfilled. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth
is also able to utter an oracle which seems to have as its source, the Spirit
of God. She recognizes Mary and the child in her womb as blessed. Not only has
Elizabeth been blessed, because God answered her prayer for the gift of a
child, she has also been blessed by a visit from the one who is called to be
the mother of her Lord. The leap of the babe in Elizabeth’s womb was a leap of
joy. John has already begun to fulfil his calling as one who would declare the
Lord’s coming and prepare the way for him. Mary is blessed because she dared to
believe in God’s word.
When joy or happiness is shared it is doubled;
when sorrow or sadness is shared it is halved. The joy of Elizabeth and Mary on
their respective vocations is shared by the other and hence, both experience a
doubling of their joy. This joy is experienced by even the child in Elizabeth’s
womb, because it is a genuine joy felt by its mother.
Life is too short to cry or be sad. Life is too
short not to be happy or not to share in the joy of others.
The text of
today’s Gospel relates a scene immediately after the announcement of the birth
of John the Baptist and contains the announcement of the birth of Jesus. There
are many similarities in the annunciations to Mary and to Zechariah. The angel
Gabriel is the one who makes both announcements. Both Zechariah and Mary are
called by name and exhorted not to be afraid. Both ask a question of the angel,
and it is the angel who tells them what name each child is to be given. It is the angel who predicts what each child
will turn out to be. However, even as there are similarities, there are
differences in the narratives. While the announcement to Zechariah comes in the
Temple and as a result of his fervent prayer, the announcement to Mary comes
(apparently) when she is in her home and it is unanticipated. While Zechariah
and his wife Elizabeth are advanced in age, Mary has not yet stayed with her
husband, and so is a virgin. The birth of John to parents who are past the age
of child bearing is a miracle, but even greater is the miracle of the birth of
Jesus, who would be born through the Holy Spirit, and to a virgin. Even as John
the Baptist goes with the spirit and power of Elijah, Jesus will be called “Son
of God”. Luke clearly wants to show John as great, but only the forerunner of
the Messiah, Jesus, who is greater.
like in the case of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, God
intervenes in human history. Mary though
betrothed or engaged to Joseph, who was of David’s family, had not yet lived
with him. This she would do only after marriage, which would be one year after
the betrothal. The angel greets Mary as the recipient of God’s grace. She has
opened herself to the promptings of God’s Spirit. While Zechariah was gripped
with fear at the very appearance of the angel, in the case of Mary, it is the
angel’s greeting that perplexed her. The angel reassures Mary and makes the
announcement, not only of Jesus’ birth, but of who he will be and all that he
to this announcement Mary, like Zechariah, asks a question. While both
questions seem similar, it is clear that Zechariah’s question expressed doubt
and asked for a sign, as is evident in the angel’s words before Zechariah is
struck dumb. Mary’s question, on the other hand, is a question asked in faith.
Mary did not question the truth of the revelation like Zechariah did. She asked
only for enlightenment on how God would accomplish this wonderful deed. This
will be accomplished in Mary through the work of God’s spirit. This is why the
child will be called holy. Luke probably also intends to convey here that it is
not merit on Mary’s part that obtained for her what she received, but God’s
generous gift in the Spirit.
evidence that what the angel has announced will indeed take place is the
pregnancy of Elizabeth, for nothing is impossible for God. Mary responds, not
merely with a Yes, but by asking that the Lord work in her to accomplish all
that he wants. The annunciation would not have been complete without Mary’s
trusting, obedient response.
assume that those whom God favours will enjoy the things we equate with a good
life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God’s favoured one,
was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a
criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of
God’s blessing. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its
scandal. Mary had been chosen, “favoured,” to have an important part in God’s
plan to bring salvation to God’s people, but it is unthinkable that God would
have forced Mary to have the child against her will. Mary is an important
example, therefore, of one who is obedient to God even at great risk to self.
think of or reflect on Mary, the one word that comes to mind to describe her
whole life is the word, AMEN, a word which may be translated, “so be it”, “your
will be done”, “do whatever you want to do in my life”. This was, indeed,
Mary’s constant response to every situation in her life, especially when she
could not understand why things were happening the way they were. The text of
today is, then, a call and challenge to each one of us that we, too, like Mary,
might be able to say YES to everything that God wants to do in our lives. It is
a challenge to be open and receptive to the Spirit of God, so that we, too,
might be able to give birth to the Saviour in our hearts.
The text of today is unique to Luke and is about the
foretelling or annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. It begins by
introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth and then moves to the temple where the
announcement of the birth is made by an angel.
Zechariah responds to this announcement in disbelief and leaves the
Temple after being struck dumb. The announced child is conceived in Elizabeth’s
womb fulfilling the angelic announcement.
In the first verses of today’s text, Zechariah and
Elizabeth are introduced. Zechariah means “God has remembered,” and Elizabeth
means something like “My God’s oath.” While Zechariah is a priest, Elizabeth is
from a priestly family. By stating that they were childless (when barrenness
was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment),
despite the fact they were righteous and blameless, Luke probably wants to
indicate that there is no connection between sin and punishment. That they were
advanced in age, and so may have lost all hope of having a child, is to show
the wondrous nature of the angelic announcement.
The priests were divided into 24 groups, and each
group served twice a year for a week at a time in the Temple. On this occasion,
Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary and offer the incense. A sacrifice
was offered twice a day, both on the outer altar and on the inner altar, inside
the sanctuary. A list was compiled of those priests who had never been chosen
to enter the sanctuary, and then lots were cast to determine the priests who
would bring the sacrifice to the altar and clean the ashes off of it. This
honour normally came only once in a lifetime. This was perhaps the most
dramatic moment in Zechariah’s life as a priest. It was thus a significant
moment for God to break into human history.
Zechariah’s immediate response to the angels’
appearance was one of fear and terror. The first words spoke by a character in
the Gospel of Luke are by the angel and are an exhortation not to be afraid.
The angel then announces, not only the birth of a son to Zechariah and
Elizabeth, but also the greatness of the child. The name of the child is to be
John, a name which means “God has shown favour” or “God is gracious”.
Zechariah’s response is a direct quotation of Gen 15:8, “How will I know that
this is so?” To Zechariah’s emphatic “I am an old man.”, the angel responds
with an even more emphatic, “I am Gabriel.” Gabriel was sent to speak for God,
but because Zechariah did not receive the good news, he would not be able to
speak until the annunciation was fulfilled and the child was born. Though
Zechariah was to pronounce a blessing on the people after he came out of the
sanctuary, he could not do so since he had lost the power of speech.
The angel’s announcement comes to pass and Elizabeth
conceives. She praises God for his graciousness to her.
There are numerous occasions in our lives when
things do not go the way we want them to go. We try everything and nothing
seems to work. We begin to think that God does not care for us or that he is
punishing us for some wrong that we or our forefathers did. We might even stop
praying at these times and lose faith. The text of today calls for exactly
opposite attitudes to these and challenges us to cultivate them.
First, if things are not going the way we want them
to go, it does not mean that God is punishing us for some past sins. There is
very clearly no connection between sin and God’s punishment. To be sure, any
kind of negative feelings that we harbour, any resentment that we hold on to,
any sediments of anger residing in our hearts, can lead to blocks in our minds
and bodies and can affect our health. Giving in to despair and desperation and
losing hope can also lead to ill health.
The call is a call to hope. It is a call to continue
to petition God, and to keep asking him for what we need, with confidence and
courage. It is a call to continue to believe that God can do what is impossible
and that nothing and no one is outside the scope of God’s power. He can, with a
word, make all things whole.
This text, which appears immediately after the
genealogy of Jesus, and is the Gospel text for today, narrates the story of his
birth. Since Mary and Joseph were engaged, they were legally considered husband
and wife. Thus, infidelity in this case would also be considered adultery.
Their union could only be dissolved by divorce or death. Though Joseph is
righteous or just, he decides not to go by the letter of the law and publicly
disgrace Mary, but he chooses a quieter way of divorcing her. God, however, has
other plans for both Joseph and Mary and intervenes in a dream. Joseph is
addressed by the angel as “Son of David” reiterating, once again after the
genealogy, the Davidic origin of Jesus. He is asked to take Mary as his wife
and also informed that is the Spirit’s action that is responsible for her
pregnancy. He is told that he is to give the child the name “Jesus". Jesus
(Iesous) is the Greek form of "Joshua" which, whether in the long
form yehosua, ("Yahweh is salvation") or in one of the short forms, yesua,
("Yahweh saves”), identifies the son, in the womb of Mary, as the one who
brings God’s promised eschatological salvation. The angel explains what the
name means by referring to Ps 130:8. The name “Jesus” was a popular and common
name in the first century. By the choice
of such a name, Matthew shows that the Saviour receives a common human name, a
sign that unites him with the human beings of this world rather than separating
him from them.
Matthew then inserts into the text the first of
ten formula or fulfilment quotations that are found in his Gospel. This means
that Matthew quotes a text from the Old Testament to show that it was fulfilled
in the life and mission of Jesus. Here, the text is from Isa 7:14 which, in its
original context, referred to the promise that Judah would be delivered from
the threat of the Syro-Ephraimitic War before the child of a young woman, who
was already pregnant, would reach the age of moral discernment. The child would
be given a symbolic name, a short Hebrew sentence “God is with us” (Emmanu‘el)
corresponding to other symbolic names in the Isaiah story. Though this text was
directed to Isaiah’s time, Matthew understands it as text about Jesus, and
fulfilled perfectly in him, here in his birth and naming.
This birth narrative of Matthew invites us to
reflect on a number of points. Of these, two are significant. First, many of us are often caught in the
dilemma of doing the right thing which might not always be the loving
thing. If we follow only the letter of
the law, we may be doing the right thing but not the most loving thing. However, if we focus every time on the most
loving thing, like Joseph, it is surely also the right thing. Though Joseph
could have done the right thing and shamed Mary by publicly divorcing her, he
decides to go beyond the letter of the law and do the loving thing, which in
his case was also the right thing.
Second, the story also shows us who our God
is. Our God is God with us. Our God is
one who always takes the initiative, who always invites, and who always wants
all of humanity to draw closer to him and to each other. This God does not come
in power, might, and glory, but as a helpless child. As a child, God is
vulnerable. He is fully human and in his humanity, is subject to all the
limitations that humanity imposes on us. Yet, he will do even that, if only
humans respond to the unconditional love that he shows.
The Gospel of Matthew begins
with the genealogy of Jesus. One important reason he begins this way is because
it is theologically important to him to begin by referring to Jesus as the son
of David and the son of Abraham. Jesus is, for Matthew, the Messiah who has
descended from David, as foretold by the scriptures. Another reason why Matthew
begins with the genealogy of Jesus is to show that God continues to act in
human history, and that he acts now, in a decisive way, in the sending of his
Son. God is not simply a God in the heavens, but a God who is Emmanuel, God
Matthew’s genealogy consists
of three parts. The first, which begins with Abraham, ends with the Davidic
kingship. The second begins with David and ends with the deportation or exile
to Babylon. The third begins with the exile and ends with the birth of the
Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Matthew calls attention to
the number fourteen at the end of the genealogy and, though a variety of
suggestions have been offered as to why he chose fourteen, the simplest
explanation is that the numerical value of “David” in Hebrew (DWD) is fourteen
(d, 4; w, 6; d, 4). By this symbolism, Matthew points out that the promised
"son of David" (1:1), the Messiah, has come. And, if the third set of
fourteen is short one member (to solve this problem some count Jechoniah
twice), perhaps it suggests that, just as God cuts short the time of distress
for the sake of his elect, so also he mercifully shortens the period from the
Exile to Jesus, the Messiah.
Unlike Luke’s genealogy,
which does not name a single woman, Matthew’s genealogy mentions four women
besides Mary. These are Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
Several reasons have been offered as to why Matthew mentioned these four women.
Three of these reasons are widely accepted today: (a) there was something
extraordinary about their union with their partners; (b) they showed initiative
or played an important role in God’s plan and so came to be considered as
instruments of God’s providence or of his Holy Spirit; and (c) all four women
(except Mary) were Gentiles and Matthew wants to show that in God’s plan of
salvation, the Gentiles were included from the beginning.
Through this, Matthew
probably wants to show that God wants all to be saved and that he uses the
unexpected to triumph over human obstacles and that he intervenes on behalf of
his planned Messiah. This combination of scandalous and irregular union, and
divine intervention, explains Matthew’s choice of the four women.
What are the points that
Matthew makes in his genealogy and what does he want to achieve by it? Matthew
clearly wants to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of all Israel’s hopes. The
story of Jesus is part of the story of God’s constant saving acts throughout
the history of Israel. God involves himself in the nitty-gritty of life.
Despite the constant infidelity of Israel, God remained faithful and, in a
definitive way, directed its history towards its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
Matthew is also interested
in affirming that the plan of God has often been fulfilled in history in
unanticipated and “irregular” ways, as was the case in the birth of Jesus from
Mary, and that Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through
irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative, like
Tamar and Ruth. Yet the main reason for Matthew’s inclusion of these women
corresponds to one of the Gospel’s primary themes: the inclusion of the
Gentiles in the plan of God from the beginning. All of the men in Jesus’
genealogy are necessarily Jewish. But the four women mentioned, with the
exception of Mary, are Gentiles, “outsiders,” or considered to be such in
Jewish tradition. Just as the following story shows Jesus to be the fulfilment
of both Jewish and Gentile hopes, so also the genealogy shows that the Messiah
comes from a Jewish line that already includes Gentiles.
By showing Jesus as descended
from David, Matthew wants to explicate that Jesus is the royal heir to the
throne. Jesus, however, thorough his life, cross, death and resurrection will
redefine the meaning of Kingship as never before.
Finally, Matthew wants to
stress that God is active constantly in history and involved in the lives of
his people. He works not only miraculously but also ordinarily in human effort,
pain, and struggle to bring people to the kingdom.