The liturgical readings of December
Advent is the most difficult season in which to correctly appreciate the liturgical Scriptures. Focused on Christmas, we often miss the original message our sacred authors intend to convey. Though we can validly use the texts to better understand the implications of Jesus’ birth, the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are not predictions of that event. The late Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown always insisted, “There are no predictions of Jesus, as we know him, anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.” If we find them there, it’s only because we’ve put them there; we’ve fallen into the trap of eisegeting (imposing one’s own interpretation onto the text) instead of exegeting the text — a biblical mortal sin.
It’s easy, for instance, to forget that the psalms we employ in our liturgies weren’t originally composed to be used in a Christmas context. They’re simply part of ancient Israel’s hymn book; songs saved through the centuries because they mirror the faith of Yahweh’s people who identify with the lyrics as they sing them. Yet, they’re not just historical pieces. Along with our Advent liturgical readings, they can also help us reflect on our own faith.
An example of such help is Psalm 80, heard on the First Sunday of Advent, a plea to Yahweh to personally come to the aid of the chosen people. Yet, if we believe the risen Jesus is God among us, that’s already happened. Only the Gospel “sleepers” don’t appreciate that presence.
Though Isaiah doesn’t specifically have Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he speaks about Yahweh breaking into our everyday lives, there’s at least one point with which we can all identify: God’s presence isn’t determined by what we do or don’t do. Jesus, for instance, wasn’t born a Jew because Jews were the best people on earth. In the first century C.E., some of their deeds were just as “polluted” as some of our deeds are today. Yet, in spite of our sins, the risen Jesus is still in our midst.
When Paul singles out the Corinthians for their unique spiritual gifts, he does so only because he’s eventually going to tear into them for misusing those gifts. God is faithful even when we are not. No wonder Mark’s Jesus insists his disciples be watchful and alert. He’s already part of their lives; but only the “watchers” ever notice that presence. So few are alert that the community’s “sleepers” won’t even recognize the Parousia when it comes!
People of faith have a bad track record when it comes to recognizing the hand of God in their lives. No biblical words are more consoling than Deutero-Isaiah’s initial oracle: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). Yet those to whom the prophet delivers these words will eventually kill him! Somehow the loving image of Yahweh, which Isaiah and the author of Psalm 85 convey, doesn’t fit the hellfire and brimstone picture these people already have. Their presuppositions are more important than God’s prophetic word.
In the same way, many of us have no desire to experience Peter’s “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). The old heavens and old earth are good enough.
It’s troubling for many during Advent to learn that the vast majority of modern Scripture scholars are convinced our evangelists present us with a “Christian,” not a historical John the Baptist; a person who in their theology decreases while Jesus increases. They write almost all the Baptist’s classic lines and put them conveniently in his mouth.
In the eyes of Jesus’ disciples, this rather strange individual — almost certainly a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls Qumran community — was the precursor of their mentor. Yahweh sent him to prepare the way for Jesus. Yet, historically, John probably had no inkling of how he actually fit into God’s grand scheme. Having gone to his death certain his prophetic ministry was a failure, he was the most surprised person in heaven when he eventually discovered what his real role actually was. A penetrating lesson for us to be far-sighted, not near-sighted, when we reflect on the impact of our lives. We often affect people — for good or bad — in ways we’ve yet to discover.
The only guarantee that we will have an eventual good effect on others is by imitating the Gospel Jesus’ lifestyle. As we know from Luke’s Gospel, he’s committed to carrying on First-Isaiah’s ministry “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1). He constantly gives himself over to the Spirit’s prophetic call to go beyond his comfort zone in caring for the needs of others. He’s concerned not for buildings, laws or institutions, but for the well-being of people. Convinced the risen Jesus’ disciples have been blessed with his prophetic Spirit, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that we must constantly be open to surfacing and following those disturbing forces in our daily lives.
Uniquely, our Third Sunday of Advent responsorial “psalm” isn’t one of the 150 psalms. It’s part of Mary’s well-known Magnificat — a song in which Jesus’ mother shares her insight that Yahweh’s actually taking care of her. Against all expectations, this “lowly servant” — Luke’s perfect follower of Jesus — is blessed in ways she could never have imagined.
Mary is Luke’s perfect disciple simply because she “hears God’s word and carries it out” (Luke 11:28).
We acquired a huge problem when the canon of Scripture was closed in the second century C.E. It led many of the faithful to believe God’s word is contained solely in that “book.” Thankfully no author of Scripture was ever guilty of that heresy. They were convinced that hearing God’s word is an ongoing experience. It’s not contained in one book or one institution or one set of dogmas. Mary isn’t the ideal Christian because she has a doctorate in Scripture, but because she’s developed the same frame of mind as her biblical predecessors, always open to what God’s Spirit is telling her today, even if that’s different from what she heard yesterday.
That’s certainly the case with the word Nathan proclaims to David, and Gabriel proclaims to Mary. Neither is expecting to hear what the prophet and the angel announce. Yet, no matter the cost, Mary, especially, is willing to carry out that word. She gives a perfect disciple’s perfect response, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Paul hits the nail on the head when he refers to such communication as the “revelation of [a] mystery” (Ephesians 3:3-4). A scriptural mystery isn’t just a truth we can’t completely understand no matter how much we study it, it’s also something which creates a life-long tension. By carrying out God’s word, Mary’s agreeing to live in that tension. Though being the Mother of God-Among-Us will bring salvation to all the world, it will also bring constant pain to her.
The author of our responsorial, Psalm 88, shares just one aspect of such tension. We should certainly revel in God’s care. But, as the lament psalms remind us, the other side of the equation is the pain which goes along with our acceptance of God’s love. The two can’t be separated.
Not even on Christmas. We can never forget that Matthew and Luke composed their infancy narratives against the background of Jesus’ dying and rising. Those two events were more deeply ingrained in their memory than Jesus’ birth. Dying and rising were integral parts of their everyday Christian lives.
The joyful implications of his birth can certainly help us appreciate the emotions Isaiah and all Judah experienced at the reforming King Hezekiah’s 741 B.C.E. birth. Finally, they had the kind of leader they’d been hoping for; a “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5). Yet within 150 years of his birth, the chosen people had to endure both the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.
No matter how lofty our dreams and hopes, when they eventually morph into real flesh and blood situations, dying always plays a central part.
The joy, for instance, which Psalm 96 commemorates takes lots of work to achieve. If Yahweh is actually among us, he/she is recognized only when there’s “justice,” when people have the right relationship with God and one another. Such joy just exists for as long as people are willing to endure the pain which comes from building those relationships.
According to Luke, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (instead of Nazareth where Mary and Joseph live) only happens because, like all of us, his parents are subject to human forces. Not even they receive a divine dispensation to step out of this world’s limits to facilitate the arrival of God’s child. Once one steps into humanity, one suffers.
Contrary to our frequent romanticizing of the Christmas stable shepherds, these unkempt folk were the outcasts of biblical society. (Palestinian parents normally locked up their daughters when shepherds passed through town!) Yet, following Luke’s Gospel theology, these community “pariahs” more quickly and faithfully recognize God among us than the high mucky mucks we so admire. It takes a real death on our part to admit that, especially if, in our mind, we don’t fit into the outcast bracket.
With that in mind, it’s clear to see that the unknown author responsible for the Letter to Titus, has much more in mind than just Jesus’ three hours on Golgotha when he writes about his “giving himself for us” (Titus 2:14). Being human always entails a “giving.”
And, as we learn on the Sunday after Christmas, such giving chronologically starts with being a member of a family. Not the easiest role to fulfill.
Luke, as a Christian author, logically brings up the exceptionalness of the child Jesus when Mary and Joseph “present” him in the Jerusalem Temple and encounter Simeon and Anna. Yet, his uniqueness historically might have been solely in the eyes of the beholders — his parents. Years ago, in visiting Rome’s station churches, I discovered that religious sites are a magnet for some rather unusual people. (One French woman, whom I frequently encountered, insisted she was the Blessed Virgin. Thankfully, she always promised she’d mention me favorably to her Son.)
Based on that Lenten experience, I often toy with the possibility that Anna and Simeon simply could have been pious Jews who hung out at the Temple. When couples brought boys in for presentation, they asked the parents if they could hold the child, then proclaimed those beautiful words over him. Who knows, maybe this particular child would eventually be the Christ who would save Israel This interpretation certainly gives the parents something to think about.
Though every husband and father who hears Psalm 128 would enjoy having a “fruitful vine” and just the right amount of “olive plants” around his table, it takes lots of dying to make everyone, not just the husband and father, a fulfilled member of our families.
Both Sirach and the unknown author of Colossians mention some practical ways of accomplishing this. Yet, as the advice to wives to “be subordinate to your husbands” reminds us, fulfillment is an ongoing, evolving process. What was fulfilling yesterday might not be fulfilling today. Being human means, we can never understand everything correctly all at one time. Is it possible there were tensions at times even in the home of the “holy family”?
Dying and rising is an essential part of all our lives, especially during the Christmas season.
Celebration Publications December 2017