(from Christmas Day to Saturday after Epiphany, including weekdays)
Weekdays up to 12th Jan.
The Bible readings for Mass, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Texts from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) are marked by consistently inclusive language. Homily notes, from a wide variety of sources, have already appeared in the ACP website, in the section edited by Fr. Patrick Rogers, Dublin, Ireland.
Theme: We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in our world, though he was with God the Father before all ages. His birth opens up for us a glorious new identity, as children of God.
The joy of the faithful watchmen; the Lord comes to save his people
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
The son of Mary is the eternal Son, through whom all things were made
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you." Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son." And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, "Let all God's angels worship him."
John describes in sublime terms the Word who became flesh for us
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John . He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known
There was this good parish priest, much respected by his people and by his fellow priests. One year he was on holidays when it was getting close to Christmas. He was thinking about Mary and Joseph, and how they must have felt when door after door slammed in their faces, when they went looking for a room for Mary to give birth to her baby. He kept thinking: 'No room for them at the inn!', and no room anywhere else! All his life he had been interested in social work, and this year he was thinking not only of the plight of Mary and Joseph and their baby, but also of the plight of homeless people everywhere. He was thinking and feeling so deeply about them that he decided to find out what it would be like to walk in their shoes… so he set off in some shabby clothes and a knapsack. Wearing a hat and a shaggy stubble of beard, he found that nobody recognized him any more, as he went knocking on doors looking for help. He found too that those who were better off were less likely to help than those who had little themselves. In fact, rich people sometimes set their dogs on to him.
When he went to a certain rectory where one of his priest-friends lived, he was not recognised for who he was; but the housekeeper had pity on him, let him into the kitchen and gave him a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. While he was sitting there in a spot he knew very well, his priest colleague and friend came in – and told him to leave immediately. He did.
That priest who went looking for help that year found out far more from experience than anything he had read in books and newspapers, or from anything he had seen on television, just what it is like to be a homeless person, poor and defenceless. He also understood so much better than before what it must be like to be a refugee and an asylum seeker, doors slamming everywhere. He also felt closer than ever before to Mary and Joseph, forced to find a shed as a roof over their heads for themselves and their baby. Never before had the Christmas story been so real for him. Never before did he feel so close to the Christ-child.
For Christ came on earth, not as a powerful prince, living in a fine mansion in the most powerful nation on earth. Rather he came as the foster son of a poor carpenter, to be born in an outhouse in one of the weakest nations on earth, a nation ruled by the Roman emperor, a nation paying taxes to a hated foreign occupying power. When he arrived in our world, he was not met or visited by dignitaries, generals, or celebrities. He was greeted and visited by poor shepherds, probably smelly and unwashed. In their time and place they counted so little that their testimony was simply not accepted in any court of law. But it was to those shepherds that God gave his good and wonderful news: 'I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.'
Choosing such aliens and outcasts as the first to receive the Christmas message, shows that God has no exceptional love for the rich and famous and powerful, the movers and shakers of this world and the manipulators of markets. On the other hand God does have a special care and affection for the victims, the suffering, the poor and the downtrodden. God is on their side.
This vital truth is illustrated by the condition of the Christ-child himself. The sign the shepherds are to look for is a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a manger, the feed box of animals. So within and beyond these signs of poverty, vulnerability and weakness, there is to be discovered the power of love, which is to say, the power of God, of Love Itself. The impact and the significance of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus could not be better expressed than in two sentences from our scripture readings today. The first says that 'The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.' The second says: 'Today a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
In a nutshell, Jesus was born to us and among us, so that we might be born in a new way. Born to live like sons and daughters of the God who is particularly caring about the poor, the deprived, the lonely, the lost, the grieving, and the heart-broken! Born to live with the same sensitivity and compassion as Jesus – walking his way, telling his truth and living like him! So the Christ-child whom we adore makes everything new again. He invites us to look at and respond to the hundreds and thousands of needy and human beings who won't be having even a tiny fraction of what you and I will be enjoying at our Christmas celebrations today.
We can't pretend that the invitation of Christ at Christmas time to opt for a new life, always happens at a time of perfect peace, tranquillity and contentment. Here's an extreme example. A newspaper reporter has said that whenever he was assigned to the Christmas shift he always did a story on how many more murders occur on this day than on any other in the whole year. Sadly, what is meant to bring out the best in people when they get together to celebrate Christmas, sometimes brings out the worst.
But we, the people of God gathered here for this feast, have only kind and gentle thoughts for one another and for all our fellow human beings as we celebrate God's overwhelming love. My own Christmas and New Year wish and prayer for you is that the God Who loves you individually, personally and dearly, and who has sent you his Son, will bless you with patience and endurance, with mercy and forgiveness, with faith, hope and love.
For the people of the Old Testament, light and darkness were more than natural phenomena. They tended to associate them often with virtue and wickedness in the community, and also with the day of the Lord's coming. Indeed, at Qumran on the Dead Sea shoreline, during the life-time of Jesus, light and darkness were seen as two opposing kingdoms, and the sun's victory over darkness was held to be a symbol of the triumph of faith over the blind pursuit of evil. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light." So begins the Bible account of the first creation, and when it was ended, God saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good.
But this original goodness and justice was to be shattered, because our first parents abused the freedom of will granted them by God, so that once again, as the prophet Isaiah says "darkness came to cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples." (Is 60:2), To dispel this darkness, a new creation was needed, and the ideal of goodness and perfection became a living reality, when the light of Christ came into the world. ."he people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; for those who lived in a land of deep shadow a light has shone." (Is 9:2). For God, who had created man in his own image and likeness, had now identified with the human race, and by assuming the body of a child in the image of man, had lowered himself and become one of us.)
It has become a tradition to associate snow with Christmas, and when it does come, shrouding everything with its white mantle, a stillness settles over the countryside, especially at night-time. That combination of darkness and stillness was the setting for the first Christmas. As the Book of Wisdom states, "When all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the middle of her course, your almighty Word leaped down from heaven, from your royal throne." (Wis 18:14f). It was as if God was saying a second time, "et there be light."– let the gloom and darkness, which to such an extent exemplify the fallen and corrupt nature of the human race, be lifted, ushering in a new age of glory to God and peace on earth among all its people. And so an angel of the Lord appeared to some humble shepherds tending their flocks in the enveloping darkness, and the brightness of the Lord shone round them. "Do not be afraid," the angel reassured them. ."Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
We too must listen, listen in the stillness of our hearts, and, like the shepherds, we must hasten, and with eagerness draw near to Christ. We must search for Christ, hasten to him with eagerness, and in the quiet times of prayer understand anew our need for Christ. St Augustine held that prior to conceiving Christ in her womb, Mary first conceived him in her heart, by her faith. The Church, too, is the Mother of Christ in that, by obedience to the will of God, she brings Christ into being in the world. But we, its members, are the Church, and so in some sense we too can bring Christ to birth, , in this spiritual way, by doing God's holy will.
Santa's most popular helper by far is Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer, who had a very shiny nose. We all know his story, as told in the Christmas song, how all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolf play in any reindeer games. But one day, all that was turned upside down. For on a foggy Christmas eve Santa came to say: Rudolf with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight? The story of Rudolf is modelled on the story of salvation. It connects with our story both as individuals and as a community. It is not Santa who saves us but the newborn Jesus.
To begin with, Rudolf was a misfit. Compared to the image of the ideal reindeer we can say that something was definitely wrong with him. What is more, he was not in any position to help himself. So are we all, misfits, as the Bible tells us. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6). Like lost sheep we are not in a position to help ourselves. Rudolf could not help himself. All his fellow reindeer only made things worse for him. Only one person could help him, Santa, the messenger from heaven.
Today we celebrate the birth of the real Messenger from heaven. As we read in today's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). He comes to free us from our predicament of sinfulness. For it is sin that mars and disfigures the beautiful image of God that we all are. Sin turns us into a despicable Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer. But the heavenly Messenger comes, not to take away the red nose but to declare to us the Good News that we are acceptable to God even with our red nose. Rudolf's red nose was a defect. But Santa chose him precisely on account of that. The heavenly Messenger has the ability to turn the defects and red noses of our tainted humanity into assets for the service of God. Jesus is this heavenly messenger.
What makes the reindeer gospel so poignant is that Santa does not use his magic wand to heal Rudolf of his defect. He let him go on with the red nose even as his chosen reindeer. Certainly Rudolf would have wanted nothing so much as to be a normal reindeer like all the rest. Similarly Jesus does not simply make us good men and women, rather he 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. As God tells St Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Like Rudolf's yes to Santa, let us today listen to what the Child Jesus asks of us, following him without looking back, even when we do not know where the journey will lead us, knowing one thing for sure: that the grace of God will supply the strength we need for the long journey of faith ahead. "For to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God".
The martyrdom of Stephen the deacon, according to Luke
Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Jesus warns his apostles about their possible martyrdom
Jesus said to his disciples: "Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved."
When the priest Zachariah was put to death by stoning, his last words were a shouted curse, "may the Lord see this and avenge me!" (2 Chron 24:22) Contrast this with the dying words of Saint Stephen: "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." The Old Testament "Eye for an eye" we can readily understand, since crimes of violence and injustice cry out to heaven for vengeance. In light of the injustice done to him, we can only be amazed by Stephen's final words, praying to God to pardon his killers. His crime was to have spoken some hard truths that his audience did not want to hear. As a result, the frenzied mob put him to death by stoning. Under a rain of rocks that crushed his bones, Stephen commended his spirit to Jesus, and with his dying breath prayed for his killers.
How do we get from Zachariah's May God punish them! to Stephen's Lord forgive them ? What or rather who has made the difference? The one who speaks in today's gospel, Jesus himself. He had foretold that those sent out to spread his message would be rejected and chased from one town to another and that some would be killed. One would expect his next words to be words of woe to the killers. Instead, they are words of divine mercy: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…"
Father, forgive them… Jesus himself made this prayer from the cross; he knew what it was to suffer unjustly, to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, scourged, and nailed to the cross. His blood did not cry out to heaven for vengeance. Instead, it cried out to God for mercy. Unconquered by hatred, Jesus conquered hatred with love — and so did Stephen, the first of many Christian martyrs, who echoed those saving words: Father, forgive ..
Yesterday we celebrated the joyful birth of a child; today we celebrate the cruel death of an innocent man. In some ways, the birth of Jesus led to the death of Stephen. Stephen was put to death because of his faith in Jesus, declaring him to be the glorious Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Luke describes Stephen dying with two prayers on his lips, a prayer of surrender, "Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit," and a prayer of petition for his executioners, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Luke had earlier described Jesus as dying with two similar prayers on his lips, a prayer of surrender, "Father, into you hands I commend my spirit" and a prayer of petition for his executioners, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing." Whereas Jesus prays to the Father, Stephen prays to the risen Lord. Mary's child is now risen Lord and can be prayed to as we would pray to God. In the church we often pray to the Father through Jesus, but we are also invited to pray directly to Jesus. Stephen died as Jesus died because, in the words of the reading, he was "filled with the Holy Spirit." We have been given the gift of the same Holy Spirit, and it is the Spirit who empowers us both to live like Jesus and to die like Jesus. On this feast of Saint Stephen, we pray for a fresh outpouring of that Spirit into our lives.
What we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands
Beloved: What was from the beginning, what we have heard,what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life.
For the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.
The beloved disciple enters the empty tomb and recognises that Jesus is risen
On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they put him."
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.
(From Augustine's homily on Saint John's First Epistle)
Who could ever touch the Word with his hands unless the Word was made flesh and lived among us? Now this Word, whose flesh was so real that he could be touched by human hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary's womb; but he did not begin to exist at that moment. We know this from John's phrase: "What existed from the beginning." See how the letter bears witness to his Gospel, where it says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God."
Some might interpret the phrase Word of Life to mean a word about Christ, rather than his body itself which was touched by human hands. But see what comes next: "and life itself was revealed." Christ therefore is himself the Word of life. And how was this life revealed? "It existed from the beginning," but at first it was not revealed to men, only to angels, who looked upon it and feasted upon it as their own spiritual bread. Then what does Scripture say? "Mankind ate the bread of angels." Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone became visible also to the eye, and so could heal the human hearts. For the Word appears to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We had the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal that part of us by which we could see the Word.
John continues: "We are witnesses and we proclaim to you that eternal life which was with the Father and has been revealed among us" — one might say more simply "revealed to us". Be sure to grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn proclaimed the message to us. So we too have heard, although we have not seen.
Are we less favoured than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: "so that you too may have fellowship with us?" They saw what we have not seen; and yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith. And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And John wrote this to make our joy complete — complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.
It is right to celebrate the Evangelist John soon after Christmas Day. The opening lines of his gospel sum up in a few words what we are celebrating at Christmas, 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.' This, the last of the four gospels to be written, is based on the eye witness testimony of the man described as the disciple Jesus loved. This could give the impression that Jesus loved this disciple more than all the other disciples. But other texts show that Jesus loved and loves all his disciples equally. He said to all of his disciples as a group, and indeed says to us also, 'As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.' We are all beloved disciples. What distinguishes this particular disciple from the others, according to John's gospel, is that he received and responded to the love of Jesus more fully than all the others did. According to this gospel, he was the only male disciple who was present at the foot of the cross; he remained faithful when others had shown themselves to be unfaithful. His faithful love brought him to the empty tomb quicker than Peter; his faithful love gave him the insight to recognize the true meaning of the empty tomb before any else understood its meaning, 'he saw and believed.' He is the disciple who encourages all of us to give ourselves wholeheartedly in love to Jesus as he has given himself fully to us.
Those who walk in darkness, and those who walk in the light
Beloved: This is the message that we have heard from Jesus Christ and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, "We have fellowship with him," while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, "We have not sinned," we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
Trying to kill off a rival, Herod orders a massacre of children
When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him." Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son.When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
Quodvultdeus was a fifth-century Christian from Carthage who knew St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). In time Quodvultdeus became bishop of Carthage and was later exiled to Naples. He died around 450 AD. In one of his surviving writings, he has this rhetorical sermon, which features in the Office of Readings for today's feast.
A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God's adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it. How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear the palm of victory.
The portrayal of King Herod in today's gospel is that of a ruler who is prepared to lash out at even innocent children to defend against what he sees as a threat to his power. There have been many such figures down through the course of history, even up to recent times, rulers who are prepared to sacrifice any number of innocent people to ensure that they stay in power. This form of kingship, the kingship of Herod, was the polar opposite of the kingship that Jesus came to proclaim, the kingship of God. Here was a kingship which finds expression not in the oppressive use of power but in the humble service of others. The child Jesus who escaped from Herod's tyranny went on as an adult to say to his disciples, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." None of us will ever act like Herod, but none of us can afford to be complacent either; we can all be prone to dominate in one way or another. The first reading today declares, "if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth." We have to be alert to the ways we can fail to take that path of humble, self-emptying, service of others which is the way of Jesus, the way of God.
Saint Thomas a Becket, optional memorial
The link between love and walking in the light of God.
Beloved: The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, "I know him," but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.
Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you, for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining.
Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple; Simeon gives praise to God
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
"Lord, now let your servant go in peace,
for your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of all people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel."
The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
St John names fidelity and love as the surest ways to walk in God's presence, as his faithful people. In today's Gospel story, we see Mary and Joseph respecting the Mosaic Law by offering the sacrifice prescribed for the poor: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Two others among the Lord's beloved Anawim. (the poor and lowly faithful ones) were Simeon and Anna, both venerable elderly people dedicated to prayer and fasting and regular worshippers in God's temple. Their strong religious spirit rendered them able to recognize the Messiah in the child Jesus as he was brought into the Temple area. Simeon's joyful response to the child Jesus reminds us that prayer and contemplation are not just a waste of time or an alternative to charity. On the contrary, time could not be better spent than in prayer, since true Christian charity is based upon a solid interior life. Only people who pray, like Simeon and Anna, are fully open to the breath of the Spirit. They are the ones best able to recognize the Lord when He manifests Himself because they have learned from the one whose very name is charity.
Simeon's prophecy of Mary's sorrow was like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her how her Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow. If Gabriel's message was a fount of incredible joy, the message of the holy old man in the temple spoke instead of Our Lord's work of redemption, that would cause great suffering to His Mother as well as to himself. Its fruits however would be magnificent, leading to the "rising" of many, into the light of God's grace.
Whenever a relative of ours gives birth to a child and family members stand around all agog at the child people invariably want to hold the child. There is something about holding this bundle of new life which is very special. Babies are endlessly fascinating; they engage us at so many levels. We focus on them and find it hard to take our eyes off them. The gospel says we hear of Mary and Joseph coming into the Temple of Jerusalem with their recently born baby, Jesus. There they came upon Simeon, on whom the Holy Spirit rested, an upright and devout man. He takes the child in his own arms and blessed God.
If every child is endlessly fascinating, how much more would that have been true of the child Jesus? Having heard this child in his arms and having set his eyes upon him, Simeon was reading to leave this world for the next, "Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace." His short but beautiful prayer has become part of the official night prayer of the church. We have not had the privilege of holding the child Jesus in our arms, like Simeon, but we do behold the risen Lord with the eyes of faith. We recognize him in the breaking of bread in the Eucharist, we hear his voice when the gospels are proclaimed, and, if we are alert, we see him in each other. We also look forward to that day beyond this earthly day when we too will see him face to face. [MH]
Thomas a Becket (1118-1170) from Cheapside in London, was appointed first as chancellor and then archbishop (1162) by order of his friend, King Henry II. As archbishop he sided with the pope on the respective authority of church and state and was slain in his own cathedral of Canterbury in 1170, for defying Henry's desire to govern the church by royal decree.
Do not be absorbed by the world or the things in the world
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.
The prophetic widow, Anna, proclaims the destiny of the child Jesus
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Forty days after his birth, when Jesus was ritually presented in the Temple (along with the prescribed sacrifice), his future was foretold by an eighty-four year old woman, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel. We learn that she was serving God night and day, with fasting and prayer. She was also something of a preacher because she spoke of the child Jesus to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. We are not told how old Simeon was, but it is likely that he was of a similar age. He had been waiting a long time to see the Christ, and having seen him he now felt ready to depart this life in peace. He was a regular visitor to the Temple, a man of prayer guided by the Holy Spirit. People of faith recognized the significance of the child that was brought into the temple by the young couple Mary and Joseph.
It was a happy meeting of youth and old age. A young couple with a child enter the Temple of God and there they meet a much older man and woman. This meeting turned out to be a source of blessing for both generations. Youth was graced by age, and age was graced by youth. The promise of youth can be inspiring to older people. The experience and wisdom of age can serve as a source of stability for the young. The generations need to stay into contact with each other, because each has something to offer to the other. The generation in the middle, those in their middle years, are often best placed to bring these two generations together.
No matter what generation we belong to, our calling as followers of the Lord is to bless and grace others by our presence. All of the people who met in the Temple that day reading were the better for that meeting — Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna and even the child Jesus himself.. It might prompt any one of us to ask two questions, "Are others the better for having met us? And do we want them to be?"
The widow Anna in today's gospel is one of those lovely characters who feature in the opening two chapters of Luke. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and of course Mary and Joseph are other such examples of people of faith in God. What distinguishes Anna from the others is her age, eighty four years old, and the fact that she never left the Temple, but stayed on there, serving God night and day with prayer and fasting. When we think of ways of serving God, we tend to think of various forms of activity that we could engage in. Anna was a woman who served God by staying put in the Temple, praying and fasting. You could say that she lived a contemplative life. Yet her life of prayer and fasting in the Temple led to her being a powerful witness of God's activity to others.
The gospel tells us that when Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to present the child, Anna began to praise God and then spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. Anna's prayer and fasting made her a powerful witness to what God was doing. She reminds us that there are many ways of serving God, and one of the most important ways is by our prayer. To pray is to serve God; it is to give ourselves over to God. Such service of God will empower us, as it empowered Anna, to be witnesses to God's presence and activity to all who are still longing for God's coming.
Saint Sylvester, pope. Optional memorial.
A Christian community in crisis, yet still trusting in the Holy Spirit
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.
The magnificent prologue of Saint John's Gospel
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out "this was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'" From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
The first reading's evidence of a deeply-divided faith-community has sober relevance for today's Church, and also offers us a stimulus to renewal. It is clear from the epistle that John's small Christian community had been badly shaken by recent events. Their membership has dropped, and no doubt bitter words were exchanged about former members who had turned away and left. But if the desertions made it seem the last hour had come, the author still trusts in the anointing that comes from the Holy One.
In the event, John's badly-shaken group (which Raymond Brown called, The Community of the Beloved Disciple) did not disappear. The final chapter of the fourth Gospel is proof that they re-built their links with the other Christian churches under the trusted leadership of Simon Peter ("Feed my lambs"), and they went on to provide the highest and noblest understanding of Christ, the Word-made-flesh and author of our salvation. The magnificent prologue of John's Gospel, and fruit of the contemplative mind and heart of the Beloved Disciple, shows how even after a severe crisis in the Church a new and greater flourishing can emerge, if we can just listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. For from his fullness we have all received, and one grace is heaped upon another, so that we can all become what we are meant to be, children of God.
We pray that our church, under the pastoral leadership of pope Francis, may be encouraged begin our new year with renewed trust in the guidance and animation of God's Holy Spirit.
New year's eve is often a time when we look back on the past year. For many, the past year will have been a difficult one. The economic situation of the country has left many without a job and forced others to emigrate whose preference would have been to stay at home. Some will have lost a loved one during the year and are struggling to come to terms with the loss. As well as looking back on the struggles and pains of the year, new year's eve can also be a time to look back in thanksgiving, a time to name the graces and gifts that have come our way and have enhanced our lives. No matter what we have been through, we all have something to give thanks for; we have all been graced in one way or another. It is that graced dimension of our lives that today's gospel draws attention to. The greatest grace and the source of all other graces is the Lord's presence to us. That grace is memorably expressed in today's gospel as, "The Word was made flesh and he lived among us, and we saw his glory." Jesus who was God became flesh as we are flesh, and as risen Lord remains with us until the end of time. The gospel also declares that "from his fullness we have, all of us, received — yes, grace upon grace." We are invited to keep drawing grace upon grace from the fullness of the Lord's loving presence. That realization keeps us thankful for the past and gives us confidence as we face into the future.
Sylvester (250-325) was born in Rome in the mid-3rd century and served as a priest under pope Marcellinus before the persecution under Diocletian (303). After the victory of emperor Constantine in 312 he succeeded Melchiades as bishop of Rome in 314 and he sent four legates to represent him at the first Council of Arles, 314. Because of old age, he was unable to attend the Council of Nice in 325 but sent legates who headed the list of its signatories, preceding the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. Sylvester was pope for 21 years and was buried on 31st December, 325, in the Catacomb of Priscilla. In German-speaking countries his name is popularly given to the New Year's Eve festival.
(A practical application of the fourth commandment, that we should honour our parents, not only when we are young, but also when they are old and in need of care.)
The Lord honours a father above his children,
and he confirms a mother's right over her children.
Those who honour their father atone for sins,
and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.
Those who honour their father will have joy in their own children,
and when they pray they will be heard.
Those who respect their father will have long life,
and those who honour their mother obey the Lord;
My child, help your father in his old age,
and do not grieve him as long as he lives;
even if his mind fails, be patient with him;
because you have all your faculties do not despise him.
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
and will be credited to you against your sins
(Paul's summary of the kindness and help which should characterize the relationships between all Christians, but are particularly applicable within the family.)
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
(Tells of the flight into Egypt and of the early dangers faced by the Holy Family before they settled down to the hidden life of Nazareth.)
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
This Sunday, the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is put before us as a model to imitate. We call them the holy family but that does not mean that they did not have problems. Just as every family has to face problems and overcome them. To put it another way, as each of us has to carry a cross, so also the holy family had to carry the cross. Their many trials and tribulations come to mind from reading the Gospels. We can easily imagine how misunderstood both Mary and Joseph must have been when Mary conceived Jesus "before they came to live together". Although this marvelous event happened by the power of the Holy Spirit, their story would never have been believed. Even Joseph was planning to divorce Mary privately before the angel intervened in a dream to assure him it was the work of God.
When the time for Jesus delivery came it took place in a shelter since Bethlehem was already so crowded. Then the family had to flee as refugees to Egypt because the child Jesus' life was in danger from king Herod, in much the same way as refugees from war-torn countries are now entering Europe to save their lives. Much later when Jesus was twelve years old Mary and Joseph suffered the awful experience of losing him for three days and the unsatisfactory answer they got from him was that he "had to be about his Father's business." But he returned with them to Nazareth and was subject to them. We do not hear of Joseph any more after that so we presume that he had died before Jesus began his public ministry. At Joseph's demise the holy family suffering the greatest pain of all families, the pain of bereavement and final separation through death.
The public ministry of Jesus must have taken its toll on Mary. During his presentation in the Temple as an infant, the old man Simeon had predicted that a sword of sorrow would pierce Mary's soul. We can imagine one such occasion was as we read of the occasion when Jesus returned to Nazareth and his cousins came to take him by force convinced that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). She must also have been pained by the taunt made up about Jesus: Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). And there was her worry about the growing hostility to Jesus from the Jewish authorities who were determined that he must die. The saddest moment of all came when Mary watched her son die on the cross.
What sustained the family of Nazareth through all of these trials and crosses? The answer is love for each other and for God. We can see Jesus' love for his mother when he was dying on the cross and gave her into the care of his closest disciple, John – with the memorable words, "Woman behold your son," and to the beloved disciple, "Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27).
What holds families together also in times of difficulty is love and forgiveness. It is love which triumphs in the end, even if sometimes it may have to take the form of "tough love" and honest talking. When discipline needs to be imposed, if it is not given in love it is rejected as abuse. If ever our families fail in any way, it is because of a lack of love on someone's part. Whenever families are successful, it is because they are places where love is highly prized. A major threat facing families nowadays is simply that we don't spend enough time together. We are so busy working, socialising, on our IPads and androids, or watching TV that we have less and less time to talk to each other.
There is a story about a solicitor who lived some distance from her elderly, widowed father. Months had passed since she had seen him and when her father called to ask when she might visit, the daughter detailed a long list of reasons that prevented her from taking the time to see him, court schedules, meetings, new clients, research, etc., etc. At the end of the recitation, the father asked, When I die, do you intend to come to my funeral? The daughters response was immediate," Dad, I can't believe you've asked that. Of course, I'll come!" To which the father replied, "Good. Forget the funeral and come now. I need you more now than I will then." She got the message and began to see him regularly after that.
Just as the holy family survived all its crises through their love for each other and their faith in God, let us pray during this Mass that our families will deal with their difficulties and hold together through love for each other and faith in God.
Lyrical praise of the wisdom God has revealed to us
Wisdom praises herself and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
"Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, "Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance."
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.
We are God's adopted children, through his only Son, Jesus
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.
The eternal Son of God has come to us, full of grace and truth
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John . He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
In 1850 John Millais (1829-1896) painted an imaginary scene in Joseph's carpentry workshop, entitled Christ in the House of His Parents. The teenage Jesus has had an accident, and blood is streaming from his hand, and his mother Mary is there consoling him. Although only an imagined incident, it conveys something of what St John means in the deepest truth of his Gospel, namely that The Word became flesh.
Because the Word actually became flesh, he became vulnerable. The human being, Jesus, felt the same range of emotions, joy, sorrow and anger, as we do. He loved other people, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, his disciple John and the rich young man. He even cried at times of severe personal stress, as when his friend Lazarus died and before entering Jerusalem when he knew that the city would reject him. He enjoyed social and dinners, so that his critics mocked him as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. He felt pity for people in need, as when he multiplied the loaves and fishes. He got angry when the authorities used the Temple for the wrong purpose. He needed companionship, so he took Peter, James and John closely into his confidence. At the end of a long day he fell asleep in the boat, tired like any of us. He felt fear before his passion, "Father let his cup pass me by" and openly admitted, "now my soul is troubled." We can imagine the depth of his feeling, and realise that When John wrote that the Word became flesh, he really meant it.
The Word pitched his tent among us, like somebody sharing in a journey. Jesus didn't just come to join the wealthy, living quietly and comfortably in their gated, guarded communities. He became flesh and dwelt among the masses. He was a man of the people. That's why the social and religious leaders called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. When curing lepers he actually touched them with his hands. Lepers were forbidden to come into the towns and Jesus would be ritually impure for touching a leper so he would need a purification rite before entering a Temple or synagogue again. But he was a man of the people, here for us, and so Law or no Law, when a leper wanted healing he touched him. As the man for others, Jesus concentrated on those who really needed him most, the marginalised and the sinners. This the ideal of pastoring promoted by pope Francis, who once famously urged bishops and priests to be shepherds, carrying on themselves the smell of the sheep .
The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and made the Father known to us. The last line of our Gospel today says, No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known. John is saying that the Word became flesh so that we would get to know the Father. Jesus is the revelation of God the Father. How can we get to know the Father? The best way is by getting to know Jesus. He is the way, and the truth and the life . When Philip asked, "Lord, show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied," Jesus said "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." He himself, the Word made flesh, IS the way to the Father. If we want to know the Father, we must get to know Jesus. We cannot say that it is too difficult to get to know God. He has revealed himself to us in his Son Jesus.
Who is this extraordinary character whose birth two millennia ago we've celebrated, and because of whom we are here today? How can we find words to express what goes beyond all words?
The Prologue to John resembles Hebrew poetry, with parallelisms repeating and developing ideas with variations on the themes, as a composer might do with music: searching to convey how Jesus transforms our lives.
Remember the song "Danny Boy"? About 40 years ago a friend of mine came for her first visit from USA. Her surname was McCarthy – not related to me! – and she and her husband were both of Irish ancestry. I remember she had told me that every time she heard Danny Boy, she cried. We went with my mother to a concert in the RDS. They played Danny Boy. She cried. Some music touches a person in such a way that the music enters the heart and mind and soul, as if we can become the music. The music is made flesh in us. Is there a piece of music, with or without words, or perhaps a poem or piece of writing, which, if it comes on the radio, you tend to stop what you're doing and just absorb it? Perhaps you become the music in total silence, or by tapping a finger or foot, or by swaying and moving with the music. The music takes flesh in us.
If music and words can find flesh in us in that way, how would the Word of the God who is love find flesh in us? Jesus is the Word made flesh; I am his disciple, his follower: how can I embody the Word of God in my life, so that others may, through me, find and hear and see that Word of life and hope and healing and peace, and that we together may be transformed by progressively becoming Word made flesh?
Our Jerusalem Bible translation says: "To all who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself." There is a small but critical error in this. Where this has "who was born", the Greek is plural: "who were born." So the New Jerusalem translation (and others) get it right: "To those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God, to those who believed in his name who were born not of human stock or human desire or human will but of God himself." We are the ones who are (re)born in this way. (Padraig McCarthy)
A new-year prayer for God to bless and protect his people
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying,
Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
The distance between God and man has been bridged, so we can call God "Abba! Father!"
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
The shepherds visit the manger. Later, Jesus is circumcised and named
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
At the Council of Ephesus (451), the mother of Jesus was solemnly proclaimed as Mother of God or Theotokos, acknowledging the Godhead of her Son, Jesus Christ. Under this noble title she is still honoured by most Christians around the world, and today's feast invites us to place our hopes and plans for the new-starting year under her motherly care. We can entrust to her our personal concerns and those of our era, the conflicts the glaring injustices, the unequal wealth and opportunity, the war in Syria and Iraq; in short, all that troubles peace and fairness in our world at this time.
In spite of everything, we can enter this new year of 2016 with a sense of wonder and trust. Somehow we can share in the spirit of Saint Peter at the Transfiguration of Christ when he said, "Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here." Such wonder and reverence was typical of Mary, our Mother in the faith, the first believer in our great Christian family. But Mary was also a flesh-and-blood woman of her times, a hard-working girl from Nazareth, cheerfully willing to be of service to others. It would be illusory to imagine her as a Christmas-card Madonna, set serenely against a golden background with hovering angels. Such a figure is simply not true to her life-story as told in the Gospels. The real Mary from Nazareth knew no riches or privelege in her lifetime. Nobody has ever lived, suffered and died in greater simplicity, marked by a strong and simple faith.
As she saw herself, Mary was the handmaid of the Lord, trusting in Providence and sustained by the goodness of God. Indeed, she stands out among the Lord's anawim, the humble hearts who confidently trust that God has everything in hand (Lumen Gentium 55). In the first four Christian centuries, Church writers emphasised Mary's faith rather than her divine motherhood. As St Augustine put it, "She conceived Jesus in her heart before conceiving him in her womb." Also venerated as Mother of Good Counsel, Our Lady can be our guide and counsellor in the area of faith. She wants to beget faith in us, to be our Mother in faith. That is why, in the gospel of John, she is present at the beginning and the end of Christ's public life.
John is the only one to record Mary's presence at Calvary, as in the terse statement, "Near the cross of Jesus stood his Mother" (Jn 19:25). When all the miracles of Jesus seemed a delusion to many, his mother stood there faithful to him to his last breath, still believing in God's power to save. Her faith did not need astounding miracles, but rested on childlike trust in the mysterious ways of God our Father. Nor did her role as mother cease then, for in his dying hour Jesus gave it a new focus when he said to John, "Behold your Mother." The mother of Jesus will henceforth be the mother of all his disciples, sharing with us her strong and simple faith.
Today on the feast of the Holy Mother of God we see Mary marvelling at what has happened, treasuring the events of Christmas in her memory, and pondering them in her heart. The image is that of the contemplative woman who ponders the marvels the Almighty has done for her and for all people. She ponders in response to what the shepherds said to her. Those simple, humble shepherds had preached the gospel to her, repeating what had been told to them by the angels, "Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." It is this good news, this gospel, that she treasured and pondered over.
The same gospel has been preached to us, and we are invited to treasure it, to ponder on it and to respond to it, as Mary did. Today, New Year's day, is a day when many feel drawn to make good resolutions. What better new year's resolution could we make today than that of adopting Mary's stance before the grace of God? Today's feast invites us to share in Mary's sense of awe and wonder before God's merciful love, made known to us in Christ, her son. As we look towards the new year, which begins today, we ask Mary to help us to treasure the gospel as she did, so that Christ might come to others through us as he came to us through Mary.
The Holy Spirit received from Jesus, teaches you all things
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.
I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.
John the Baptist describes himself as the voice of one crying out in the desert
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
By his preaching of repentance, John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox church, John is titled as "prodromos ," and in the Western, Latin church he is "precursor " (forerunner), describing his unique role in the story of our salvation. In order to prepare to be a spiritual guide for others, he was drawn by the Holy Spirit to an austere and contemplative style of life, living in the desert of Judea from his youth until his early manhood, about thirty years of age.
At that stage he began his public mission as a preacher of repentance and renewal to his Jewish people. Clothed in a rough penitential garb of camel-skin, be announced the grace of God to all who came to him in search of repentance, and who went down into the waters of baptism for the washing away of their sins. He showed them simple ordinary ways to serve God in their daily lives, and proclaimed the imminent coming of the Messiah, who would pour out God's Spirit more richly upon them.
Many people seeking direction, especially those regarded by the Temple authorities as marginal Jews (such as tax collectors and prostitutes) received John as the true herald of God, and heard his words as those of a true prophet. To the official leaders of Judaism, the Priests and the Pharisees, John seemed more a threat than a blessing. Their resistance to a message requiring moral and spiritual renewal made them unable to hear the divine guidance latent in his words. Today's Gospel is a sober reminder to all of us, but especially to church leaders, to listen to what the Holy Spirit says through the voices of awkward prophecy.
The question put to John the Baptist, "Who are you?" is one of the great questions of life. We can struggle to answer honestly or fully, "Who am I?" It's easy to reply at a certain level by telling people what we do, "I am an accountant" or "I am a carpenter." However, going below our job description (what we do) to who we are in inmost our core is much more difficult. And our answer to that deeper question can change as we go through life. How we answer it at this present moment in our lives is not how we would have answered it earlier in our lives.
For people of Christian faith, the answer to that question will be deeply influenced by our relationship with Jesus, because that relationship touches us at a very deep level, at our core. Saint Paul is the great example of that truth. If he were asked, "Who are you?" he might answer in the words of his letter to the Galatians, "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." His identity had become a Christ-stamped identity. When John the Baptist was asked that key question in today's gospel, he cals himself a voice that cries in the wilderness. His identity was shaped by his relationship with Jesus. He is the voice who witnesses to the Word, the Word that has become flesh. Our own baptismal calling is to keep on growing into Christ so that our personal identity is more and more shaped by our relationship with him.
We are God's children now; when he is revealed, we will be like him
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.
The Baptist bears witness to Jesus, who ranks ahead of him.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."
And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
Saint Augustine makes this contrast between John and Jesus, highlighting the humility of John, whose role was to prepare the way of the Lord: "John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever. Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart. When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts."
Augustine continues: "Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. .. 'I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.' If he had said, 'I am the Christ,' how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself. He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride."
What is striking about the portrait of John the Baptist is his generosity of spirit. This was a very charismatic person who drew people to himself. As a result, he had his own disciples. Yet, in today's gospel we find John directing two of his disciples away from himself and towards the one whom he proclaimed as the Lamb of God. As a result John's two disciples became disciples of Jesus. Having responded to John's invitation to go towards the Lamb of God, they subsequently respond to Jesus' invitation to come and see. John was not possessive about his group of disciples. He encouraged them to go towards someone else who had more to offer them than he had.
The way John related to his disciples shows us humanity as its best, human love as an expression of God's love. To love others in the way God loves them is to want what is best for them, and that will often mean letting them go to others who can help them to grow as human beings and as children of God in ways that we cannot. It is above all the Lord who can help us to grow fully as human beings and as sons and daughters of God. The greatest act of love we can show others is to let them go to the Lord, to direct them to the Lord as John the Baptist directed his own disciples. There was only so much John could do in leading his disciples to Jesus. They had to make their own personal response to the call of Jesus to come and see. There is only so much any of us can do to lead others to the Lord. At some point, we all have to make our own personal response to the Lord's personal call to each one of us to come and see, and then to remain with him.
How we are reborn as children of God
Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
The calling of Jesus' first disciples: "Come and See"
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him an said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
The vocational stories told by John in his first chapter combine a lovely simplicity with challenging depth. They may be compared and contrasted to the call of the fishermen by the lake-shore, but they bring out extra dimensions in the call to follow Jesus. On the one side we see the influence of others, in this case, John the Baptist, pointing towards Jesus, inviting us to see and admire what he has to offer. On the other side, our own desires and questions come into it too. Jesus invites them to express their deepest hopes and aspirations in a deep question: "What are you looking for?" There is no religious vocation without that inner quest which demands satisfaction.
"What are you looking for?" Their first reply is superficial, not really naming their purpose. "Rabbi, where are you staying?" Well, it's a start; they want to relate to him in some way; to follow up on their first encounter with him. Then comes his invitation, which calls them into a meeting that will last not just an hour but a whole lifetime: "Come, and you will see." Here we see that wonderful way in which the fourth Evangelist manages to combine a definite, concrete episode or meeting ("Come to my house this afternoon, and we can talk.") with an open-ended challenge to a constant religious experience ("Come and be with me, and you will see what life can mean.") St John achieves a similar effect in each of the later stories in his Gospel. What happened once, in the encounter of some individuals with Jesus, continues to happen for his disciples in every subsequent time and place.
Along with the role of John the Baptist, we see how the early Christians drew one another to Christ. In Simon's case it was his brother Andrew who excitedly tells his brother "We have found the Messiah!" This was the occasion, in John's account, when Jesus renamed Simon as Cephas or Peter. Not quite the same as in Matthew (16:16ff), but just as valid a way of telling us that it is only in Jesus that we find our full, God-given vocation.
Saint Charles of Mount Argus, optional memorial
The original Christian message, that we should love one another
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who as the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see the heavens opened
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."
Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
It's hard not to like the person of Nathanael as portrayed by the evangelist in today's gospel. He clearly wasn't the kind of man who got carried away by other people's enthusiasms. When Philip breathlessly tells him, "We have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth," Nathanael's reply was, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth." To Philip's credit, he persisted with Nathanael, and he must have broken through Nathanael's prejudice because at the beginning of today's gospel we find Nathanael coming towards Jesus. Jesus addresses him as a man incapable of deceit, someone in whom there is no guile. What you see is what you get, as we might say today. As a result of his meeting with Jesus the sceptic comes to confess Jesus as "the Son of God; the King of Israel." Jesus makes Nathanael a wonderful promise, "You will see;" Angels were understood as mediators, connecting heaven and earth. Jesus promises Nathanael that he will come to appreciate Jesus as the meeting point of heaven and earth. Nathanael travelled a journey from scepticism to great faith, with the promise of greater things to come. We are all on a journey of faith; we can all hope to see those greater things that Jesus promises Nathanael. As Paul says, "now we see as in a mirror dimly, then we shall see face to face."
John Andrew Houben (1821-1893) from Munstergeleen, Holland, was briefly the Dutch army before being called to religious life with the Passionists in 1845, in Belgium, taking the name Charles. After ordination he was sent to England in 1852, where he met Irish emigrants fleeing from the Famine. In 1857 he moved to Ireland, to Mount Argus monastery in Dublin. Never a famous preacher, he excelled in comforting the sick and had amazing gifts of healing. By the time of his death in 1893 he was widely revered as a saint
(or the Sunday between 2 January and 8 January)
In those days the Messiah will reveal his glory to all the nations
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Christ is here to save all people, without racial distinction
Surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The Magi's visit shows the light of Christ for all the nations
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The readings from the Infancy Gospels are closely linked to narratives in the Old Testament. The writers (Matthew and Luke) use citations and re-written narratives to explore the identity of Jesus. It all may seem a strange literary device to us, but the original hearers and readers, the Jewish Christians, would have had no trouble picking up the biblical resonances that gave these stories such significance for their faith.
(i) Balaam: Behind the story of the magi–wise men–lies the story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. In the Book of Numbers, an evil king of Moab tries to use the seer/magus Balaam to bring disaster on the people of Israel "because they were so numerous." Against God's will, Balaam obeys the king, but at the point of cursing Israel, Balaam utters an oracle of future hope. This oracle was read in later times as a Messianic promise. "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near– a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel." (Num 24:17) The author takes from this story the narrative of an evil King (Balak / Herod), trying to bring disaster (on Israel / on the Messiah), by means of Balaam (a seer / the Magi). The star in the story comes from Numbers 24 and alerts the reader this time to Messianic fulfilment.
(ii) The gifts offered by the Magi call to mind a universalist text in Isaiah: "A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord." (Is 60:6) It was concluded from this text as well that the mode of transport of the magi was camels, although Matt supplies no such detail.
(iii) The Magi as a symbol of the Gentiles comes from an echo in Psalm 72: "May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service." (Psa 72:10-11) From this reference, quite early on it was deduces that the magi were kings, as in all representations since. Eventually they were given names–Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar.
(iv) Bethlehem, the city of David, is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, unlike Nazareth. The proof text provided was, at the time, read as a messianic prophecy. "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." (Mic 5:2)
During Christmas time we give presents to different people and others give presents to us. What's it all about? It all goes back to the story of the wise men going to Bethlehem, falling down on their knees, and offering the best gifts they could afford to the Baby King. But Christmas is not just about giving presents. It's more about being present, i.e. sharing ourselves with warmth, affection and sincerity. The quality of our personal presence is everything.In practice, gift-giving may sometimes be aimed more at keeping on side and keeping the peace than being really present. In fact, gift-giving may at times be part of the commercialisation of Christmas instead of an expression of unconditional love.
The wise men were completely single-minded and sincere in their gift-giving. Their gifts were expressions of their respect, reverence, gratitude and love for the child. Their gifts were given with no strings attached, no conditions, and no mixed motives. The flaws in our own gift-giving may make us feel that the whole business of exchanging Christmas presents should be abolished, and that the commercialisation of Christmas should be restrained and restricted, if not eliminated altogether.
If we think such thoughts, it may help to remember that the consumerism of Christmas is somewhat necessary. Were it a completely spiritual celebration, hundreds of small businesses would go to the wall. Thousands of factory workers making bon-bons, trees, chocolates, decorations, cards and toys, would find themselves unemployed. It may also be helpful to remember that if people did not spend money on gifts to family and friends at Christmas, their consciences would not be roused to make donations to the poor and needy at this special time of giving and sharing. (Many charities, in fact, experience a big boost at Christmas time).
Despite the limits and flaws in our gift-giving, it's important to both keep the practice alive and to purify it of its worst excesses. It's particularly important to the lives of children. The good news is that while they are attracted to receiving e.g., a gift of an I-pad or of shiny new roller-blades, they are also attracted to the Crib and to the story of the baby lying there clothed in rags. Their hearts are touched by the plight of his parents who are so poor that they can offer him nothing but their protection and affection.
In fact, children very easily get the message that this is a story of love. They appreciate the humanity of the Holy Family, their struggles and their sacrifices, to bring to the human race the Light of the Nations. The story of the visit to the Crib by the Wise Men is a story of giving and receiving. It speaks of how gifts express love between persons, and of how gifts given with love bind people together. But it is not simply about the giving of things (in this case gold, frankincense, and myrrh) but the giving of persons, the sharing of selves.
In celebrating Epiphany we are celebrating the greatest proof of goodness there has ever been, of God's deeply personal love for us. For it was out of love, that the Father gave us the Son, and gave him to be our Light, our Saviour, our King and our Joy. His present to us is nothing less than the divine presence in our lives. The poet John Betjeman has aptly called this:
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago.
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.
Few scholars dispute that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But dating his birth is quite another matter. Historians have never been able to agree on the year Jesus was born and there is even less certainty about the day or the month. Oddly enough, a clue may lie in today's story about the star that led the way to him. The part of the Infancy Narrative one might be most tempted to discard as fairy-tale can also be highly meaningful. Whatever else has changed since Christ was born, the sky at night remains the same. Star-gazers today can follow the same star the Wise Men followed.
Western tradition has chosen three as the number of the Wise Men and even found exotic names for them, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. We may imagine that they travelled from Persia or South Arabia, though Matthew simply indicates that they came from the East. The gospel leaves no doubt that they were men of conviction, with enquiring minds and adventuresome spirit; in a word, intellectuals.
The point should not be overlooked. The church's leaders have often not shown such welcome to intellectuals as its Founder did. No church or religion can flourish if it does not cherish specially its poets, writers and thinkers. The true church in the world is an island of saints and scholars. Stars reveal their secrets to dreamers. The searching of the Wise Men is a fine illustration of the Latin adage for theology, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). The message for us is clear: if there is to be any epiphany in our lives we will need our heads as well as our hearts. We can ill-afford to ignore the insights of questing intellectuals.
Distinguishing the spirit of truth from the spirit of error
Beloved, we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Jesus went about the country villages, teaching and healing
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." And he went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
It is often said that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, guiding us like Israel's great lawgiver and shaping the New Covenant with an inner, even more demanding code of conduct than the Old. While the parallel of Jesus with Moses features in Matthew's composition, even more important is today's message of a salvation going way beyond the confines of Abraham's descendants. Matthew sees great significance in Jesus' move to Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It's at the heart of what he calls "Galilee of the Gentiles" and foretells how all nations will see great light through Jesus–that is, they will be called into God's own family and be saved.
He goes on to show Jesus teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness among the people. It was his concern with healing people, enhancing the lives of the marginalised, that drew such crowds to him. The dynamic that drove his ministry and urged him to travel the country on foot, making himself available to all kinds of outsiders, was love. Yes, he calls on people to "repent"–to reconsider their ambitions, priorities and lifestyle–but it is in order that they may have the fullness of life. Therefore Matthew can sum up the impact of all Jesus' activities in the lovely phrase: "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light!"
Jesus announces the kingdom of heaven as being close at hand and shows this good news in action by healing those who were broken in mind, body and spirit. St. Matthew gives a very positive picture of great light and life. There was something so attractive about Jesus and his message that, according to Matthew, people gathered to him from a very large geographical area, Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and Transjordania. The person of Jesus and the message he proclaims is as attractive today as it was when he began his ministry in Galilee. His person and his message is as much good news today as it was then. Jesus is as much God's gift to us today as he was two thousand years ago for the people of Galilee. He is just as much a light in our darkness now as he was then. We need to keep alive that sense of the attractiveness of Jesus, the realization that our faith is always a response to good news. It is good to remind ourselves of this basic truth about our faith as we face into the year that beckons for all of us.
Love's divine origin and its influence on our lives
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus feeds the hungry crowd with a few loaves and fishes
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it's already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages, and buy themselves something to eat."
But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take more than half a year's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see."
When they found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
This memorable miracle-story is told with variations in all four Gospels. Clearly it made a deep impression not just on those who were there but on later generations too. The importance of this story in those early days is clear enough. In a peasant, agricultural society that was politically and economically oppressed by the occupying Romans, having enough food to eat when resources were scarce was a daily challenge almost beyond our understanding today. For later generations in more prosperous times, it encapsulates the life-enhancing core of Jesus' work, and his call to people to share what they have with others.
Each of the Gospels tells of many people gathering from the surrounding countryside to listen to Jesus, so that at the end of a long day, five thousand people are in need of food and lodging. The disciples sensibly suggest that he should send the crowd away to fend for themselves. But he knows that the food ready to hand will be enough, even though they can only find five barley loaves and two fish–remember, they were not far from the lake of Galilee. He blesses this apparently meager meal and asks his followers to distribute it–and to their amazement everyone had enough to eat, so much so that the leftovers filled twelve baskets. Many today would want to receive a blessing of such abundance, when times are tough. Perhaps it can be achieved still, if the sharing message of Jesus gets into our hearts, and into our governance, as Pope Francis is calling for. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is a colourful background to the call made by Jesus and so well captured in today's epistle, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God."
On this occasion Jesus struggles to get his disciples to become giving people. They asked him to send the crowd away because the crowd were hungry. In response, Jesus told them, "Give them something to eat yourselves." He was saying something like, "Take some responsibility for these needy people, don't just wish them away." He pushed them into doing something for the people, no matter how small. They eventually found five loaves and two fish, very small resources indeed. But with those few resources, they fed the crowd. Jesus was teaching his disciples and us that the willingness to do something, no matter how little, the readiness to give something, no matter how small, can bear rich fruit. The Lord can take our giving, even our little giving, and work powerfully through it. The gospel reading encourages us to be giving people, even when we seem to have little to give and the situation we are facing seems beyond us.
God abides in those who recognise Jesus as the Son of God
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
Jesus walks on the water and calms the gale
Straight away, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Voyagers: Life can be viewed as journey (Pilgrim's progress; Exodus; Odyssey), or still better as voyage (because driven by forces more powerful than ourselves, like wind and wave.) We sail upon a rippling surface of events, feeling the joy of movement, being alive and going somewhere. When things go well, we feel the contentment of those experienced sailors, the apostles on their way home across the quiet lake of Galilee.
Staying afloat: A sudden gale blows up, changing the mood utterly. Our own life-voyage has its share of storms too, anxieties, problems and pressures of various kinds. How often a sudden turn of events can rob us of inner peace. Are we on a charted course, or just drifting along without any determined direction? Many find it hard enough to stay afloat, pressurised by the bewilderingly changing times, ill-at-ease in their relationships with others, discontented and insecure in themselves. That's exactly what the frightened apostles in the storm mean for us today: we are those sailors, tossing about in the waves.
Finding remedies: Many prescriptions are suggested, to ease the upsets of our voyage. Like different brands of medication for sea-sickness! A long quiet rest, a change of occupation, psychiatric help or counselling, a course of Yoga or Transcendental Meditation, Contemplative or Charismatic Prayer. Doubtless, every remedy has its own advantages, but what better support can be found in times of stress than an understanding friend? Today's gospel suggests that our first and most constant recourse should be to none other than, Christ himself.
A hidden presence: God is present where we least expect him, although it is a hidden, unseen presence, not always easy to discover. It takes faith nearer than the door." So the apostles were amazed to see Christ coming to them in the middle of the storm, for (at that stage) they were men of little faith. Elijah, that lonely refugee, faithful to his God despite cruel persecution by Jezebel, discovered the mysterious presence of God in the still, small voice of his own soul. Standing at the mouth of a cave, on the slopes of the holy mountain, he got strength and comfort from the Living God. Where God is, there is peace. But his presence is everywhere, for those who learn to discern it.
Safely to harbour: We cannot expect immunity from the hardships and problems faced by all the other voyagers through this life. Indeed, Christ himself shared fully in all of these anxieties, being tested as we are. If the Church be seen as a boat (in which there are no idle passengers, but all are needed to row!), then we have as destination the safe harbour of eternal life. With the compass of faith, and Christ himself as unseen captain of the ship, that harbour will surely be reached. In the meantime, though tossed about by circumstances, he tells us: "Courage! Do not be afraid, men of little faith!'
The gospels often portray Jesus at prayer. Today Mark tells how, after being busy feeding the five thousand, Jesus went off into the hills to pray.But even though Jesus went off alone, his prayer did not in fact remove him from people. Indeed, it made him more responsive to the struggles of others. As he was praying in the hills, Jesus became aware of his struggling disciples, battling against the wind and worn out with rowing. So he left his prayer and came to his struggling disciples, and spoke words of great reassurance to them, "Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid."
Mark suggests that while Jesus remained in communion with God he also stayed in communion with people in need. That is true of our own awareness too. In prayer, we open ourselves to the Lord's presence; we become attuned to the Lord who is present to us, but as we do so we will often find ourselves thinking of others, feeling with and for others. This is not surprising. The Lord whom we approach in prayer is full of love for others; as we draw near to him in prayer, we will be caught up into his concern for others It is perhaps not surprising that much of our prayer tends to be intercessory prayer, prayer for others. Authentic prayer will deepen not only our communion with the Lord, but our communion with others as well, especially with those who, like the disciples in the gospel, are struggling and battling the storms of life.
Whoever loves God should love Jesus, and all of our fellow-Christians
Beloved, we love God because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a sister or brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus proclaims the Isaiah prophecy fulfilled
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
Nowhere else–except in his conversation during the Last Supper–does Jesus express his purpose in life so clearly as in his Scripture-based talk to his fellow villagers in the Nazareth synagogue. When called to the rostrum to read from the holy Scripture and say some words of inspiration and guidance, he chose a key text from Isaiah that summed up exactly what he himself wanted to achieve, as a preacher and healer.
He must have known this passage well, for Luke remarks that Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written. We may well imagine that he had heard it read before, often perhaps, and had made it his own by frequent meditation. In many ways it conveys the same deep, hope-filled spirituality found in Our Lady's Magnificat about joy and liberty, and the divine power that can set free all who are oppressed. And what a gracious God is there portrayed, a God who anoints with the Spirit the one who is to bring joy and fullness of life to the poor, the captives and the blind. No wonder the villagers were impressed and delighted, to think that this new day of salvation had dawned.
The way can be long and arduous, from hatching an idealistic programme to achieving it in the real world. So it was for Jesus. Soon after applauding him, his audience in Nazareth turned against him and drove him from their village. This prepares us for the opposition he will meet from Scribes, Pharisees and the Jerusalem priesthood as he tries to spread his message. His ideals of liberation, sharing and fraternity, and of loosening the chains of a legalistic, hierarchical structures were anathema to the priveleged few. In the end, of course, they led to his rejection and execution in the darkness of the hill of Calvary.
But even on Calvary, more than ever–as Luke will show (Lk 23:43,45)–the Spirit of the Lord was still with Jesus, giving sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. His life's mission, announced in the Nazareth Synagogue and carried out in many places over the next three years, reached its climax of completion in his sacrificial death, about which each of us can say "He loved me, and gave himself for me!" (Gal 2:20)
Today we find Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth saying what his ministry was going to be about. Above all, he wanted to proclaim the Lord's favour. Jesus would reveal God's loving favour for all, especially for those who were usually out of favour, the poor, the captives, the blind and disabled, the downtrodden. We could add to that list, the lost, sinners, widows, all who found themselves on the margins at that time for one reason or another. Jesus was announcing that he was about to reveal the hospitality of God, a hospitality that was as broad as God's love. This was indeed good news.
Yet, strangely, this good news was not well received by the people of his home town. By the end of that sermon, they are ready to throw him down the brow of a hill. It seems as if Jesus' God was just too big for the people of Nazareth, too hospitable, too welcoming, too forgiving, too all embracing, too generous. Jesus challenges our image of God. Yet because he proclaims the favour and hospitality of God, he has the power to transform us, enrich us in our poverty, bring us freedom where we were captive, enlighten our blindness, restore our sense of belonging to the Lord after we have been lost.
(God has testified to his Son, Jesus, who grants victory over this world)
Beloved: Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came through water and Blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and Blood.
The Spirit is the one who testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.
So there are three who testify,
the Spirit, the water, and the Blood,
and the three are of one accord.
If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this,
that he has testified on behalf of his Son.
Whoever believes in the Son of God
has this testimony within himself.
Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar
by not believing the testimony God has given about his Son.
And this is the testimony:
God gave us eternal life,
and this life is in his Son.
Whoever possesses the Son has life;
whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life.
I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God.
Jesus heals the man covered in leprosy, and sends him to the priest, to witness it
It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was; and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I do will it. Be made clean." And the leprosy left him immediately.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but "Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them." The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
It is worth dwelling on some details in today's Gospel story. After calling fishermen to follow him, Jesus showed them what it means to be fishers of men. The people he set out to "catch" or engage with his message were not the rich and the influential, but primarily the poor and the neglected. Tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, and thieves were drawn to Jesus, for they experienced him as encouraging their dignity and not condemning them. In today's story, Jesus reaches out one of the most rejected groups of all, people suffering from the awful disease of leprosy. This account is meant to show us how the mission of Jesus was carried out. He wanted to do exactly what he had said in the Synagogue in Nazareth, to heal, mend, restore, and set free.
"In one of the towns" – Luke does not specify where, but presumably in Galilee, he meets someone who should not be there, for a man full of leprosy should have stayed far away from other people. To avoid infecting others, lepers had to live outside the town, and cry "Unclean! Unclean!" if approached by people (Lev 13:45). They were "untouchables" in every sense of the word, despised, forsaken, judged and condemned.
Maybe the man came searching for Jesus, and when he saw him he fell down, with the touching request, "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean." How did he recognize Jesus? Perhaps, as the crowds gave way before the leper, Jesus did not move out of the way, but let the diseased man come right up to him. He never doubted the ability of Jesus to heal him. His request is similar to that of Naaman who asked the prophet Elijah to cleanse him of his leprosy.
Before replying, Jesus put out his hand and touched him. This would have shocked both the leper and the disciples, for rabbis and priests in particular must carefully avoid lepers, so as not to become ceremonially unclean. But such a shocking action was necessary for Jesus to show his acceptance and compassion to one who had not received such love in a long time. This kind of "pastoral" risk-taking shows what is needed to be a fisher of men.
Different sorts of sin, some of which is venial, less deadly to the spirit
Beloved: We have this confidence in him
that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask,
we know that what we have asked him for is ours.
If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly,
he should pray to God and he will give him life.
This is only for those whose sin is not deadly.
There is such a thing as deadly sin,
about which I do not say that you should pray.
All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.
We know that anyone begotten by God does not sin;
but the one begotten by God he protects,
and the Evil One cannot touch him.
We know that we belong to God,
and the whole world is under the power of the Evil One.
We also know that the Son of God has come
and has given us discernment to know the one who is true.
And we are in the one who is true,
in his Son Jesus Christ.
He is the true God and eternal life.
Children, be on your guard against idols.
John the Baptist defers to Jesus as the best man does towards the bridegroom
Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea, where he spent some time with them baptizing. John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was an abundance of water there, and people came to be baptized, for John had not yet been imprisoned.
Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew about ceremonial washings. So they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him." John answered and said, "No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said that I am not the Christ, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease."
The fourth Evangelist sums up in two rich phrases the attitude of John the Baptist towards Jesus: "He must increase; I must decrease." This is the spirit required by his God-given role as "prodromos" or "forerunner" to the Messiah – it is one of authentic deference, of knowing his place in the order of things. Not for him the all-too-common human desire to hold on to the limelight, to cling to power and prestige until forced to renounce them by death or defeat.
John the Evangelist credits his namesake, the Baptist, with a great spirit of honesty. While many were prepared to revere the Baptist and even regard him as the awaited Messiah, he stubbornly refused to claim such an honour for himself. His role was to be the signpost pointing to Jesus, the Voice in the Desert preparing the way of the Lord. He was to Christ as the best-man is to the bridegroom, the essential auxiliary, the reliable, supportive friend. And for this he has always been greatly esteemed by Christians everywhere. In our roll of honour he is rightly listed directly after the Blessed Mary ever-virgin and before even the Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul.
One could say that John the Baptist provides us all with a vivid and challenging role-model: how to become somehow a forerunner for Jesus in our own lives. Each of us is meant to help others to find the way of the Lord, worship him and savour the special gift he has brought to our lives. Like the Baptist and the many Christian saints who came after him, we can and should make Jesus the centre of our ambition: "He must increase; I must decrease."