Tuesday, December 17, 2013

4th Sunday of Advent 2013

During this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, our scripture reminds us of how it is that our Savior, Emmanuel, Jesus (Yehoshua, which means “God saves”) will come into the world… born by virgin.

The Word for the 4th Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Our first reading, from early Isaiah, give us the prophecy of how this “Emmanuel”, this “messiah”, will come into the world… “the virgin will conceive and bear a son.”  While our Christian ears recognize this as the prophecy of Mary, this was not the case for those who first heard and read these words.  At the time, King Ahaz was under threat from the Assyrians, and fearing the fall of Jerusalem, actually aided in the fall of the Northern Kingdom.  In this excerpt of the story, the Lord is upset with Ahaz, and is trying to give him one last chance to repent… to “ask for a sign from the Lord your God.”  While God sees this as an opportunity for reconciliation, Ahaz doesn’t take the bait, which causes God to get angry (…is it not enough for you to weary people…”), and in a show of power, tells Ahaz that “as a sign” a virgin will give birth.  This is a power play between Ahaz and God… Ahaz thinks he doesn’t need God, but God, of course, knows differently.  Some 730 years later, God makes good on this “sign”.

Our second reading comes from the opening greeting in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  From the opening lines of this letter Paul not only establishes himself as “a slave of Jesus Christ”, but establishes Jesus as the one, the Messiah, as foretold by the Scriptures… like the scripture we just read from Isaiah.  It is through Jesus we receive grace, and by our obedience that we (Jews and Gentiles) belong to Jesus.

This takes us to our Gospel from Matthew.  Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus, that starts with King David, and works its way to Joseph.  Then the story continues with our gospel passage today that explains the birth of Jesus, using those very same words prophesied by Isaiah in our first reading.  It’s no coincidence that Matthew made this connection to the original prophecy.  We need to remember that Matthew’s original audience was Jewish.  As such, a Jewish audience would know and remember these words from Isaiah, and Matthew is quick to make the connection from that older prophecy to that of Jesus.  This is typical of Matthew, drawing on the words of the prophets to reinforce is evangelization, to show his Jewish followers that Jesus is indeed the one who was foretold would come.  For us Christians, it is a reminder for us both of Jesus’ immaculate conception, and Joseph’s willingness to accept this calling.  It needs to be noted that Joseph, by Mosaic Law, did not have to accept Mary after learning of her pregnancy, and was will within his rights to have her stoned to death.  Not only was he willing to spare her shame, he willingly accepted God’s messenger and took her into his care.  This act of compassion is a sign of the Kingdom of God that is to come, and reminds us that our duty is to serve one another.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

3rd Sunday of Advent 2013

The third Sunday of Advent is also referred to as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin “to rejoice”.  This Sunday we put away the violet color of Advent and put on the rose color vestments and light the rose colored candle to mark this festive moment.  So why are we rejoicing now?  Advent isn’t over yet.  First, because the 3rd Sunday marks that we are past the halfway point of our Advent fast.  While the practice of fasting for Advent was done away with in the early 20th century, we still recognize the day as a brief moment of celebration as we wind-down our period of penitent reflection.  It is also an opportunity to recognize that Jesus’ coming, both the first time, and the second time yet to come, are moments of great joy and celebration.  As such, our readings this week take a more joyous tone.

The Word for the 3rd Sunday of Advent
        Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
        Psalm 146, 6-7, 8-9, 9-10
        James 5:7-10
        Mathew 11:2-11

Our first reading, again from Isaiah, speaks of a glory to come… that the Lord will save Jerusalem.  The land itself will blossom with joy for those how are strong in the Lord.  It should be noted that at this point in the Isaiah narrative, the Assyrian forces are at King Hezekiah’s doorstep, and in desperation he turns to Isaiah for the Lord’s help.  While the Lord rebukes Hezekiah, he does show his mercy to the people.

Our second reading comes from the letter of James (a catholic letter written to everyone).  Here we face a people concerned that Jesus has not yet returned, so James is calling for patience, using images that his agrarian community can understand… that of waiting for the rains to come and water their crops.  Jesus, like the rain, will come, but in the meantime they should follow the examples of the prophets as they wait.

We then turn to our gospel from Mathew and pick up the story of John the Baptist now later in the narrative where he is in prison.  John, perhaps sensing his own death to be coming soon, sends his followers to see if Jesus is indeed the one of whom he foretold.  Jesus gives John’s followers a message to bring back to him, then turns to the crowd to speak of John as the one who was fortold (that voice in the wilderness to announce the coming of the savior).  We would be misguided, I think, to not realize that John’s followers, who were dismissed by Jesus halfway through the reading, also heard this as well.  So while this message may have brought John and his followers great joy, it won’t stop his execution 3 chapters later.

One of the common threads weaving its way through today’s readings is “prophecy”.  Isaiah prophesying the salvation of Jerusalem.  James prophesying that Jesus will return.  John the Baptist prophesying the coming of the chosen one.  While we Catholics hold these and other prophets in high esteem, we should not forget that the charism of prophecy is one that is in all of us.  By virtue of our Baptism we are called to be priest, prophet, and king.  We don’t have to be that voice crying out in the desert like John, but we do have a duty to speak the truth through our words and actions...  and for this Sunday, a word of joy that Jesus will come. 

Catholic Update:
A Tour of a Catholic Church
Advent Day by Day:  Opening Doors to Joy

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2nd Sunday of Advent 2013

Most of the time our readings for a particular week give us a fairly clear message that threads itself through our Sunday readings, but looking at our readings this week, I find very challenging to find that common thread or theme.

The Word for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
        Isaiah 11:1-10
        Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
        Romans 15:4-9
        Mathew 3:1-12

We open with a reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Here he describes for us a vision of the ideal king… the one who will “fear the Lord” and be a just judge.  His words will be his only weapons and his reign will bring universal peace.  It will be so glorious that all nations will seek it out.  To our Christian ears, it sounds as if he is describing Jesus himself.  While this would not  be incorrect, neither would it be completely correct.  First we need to consider where Isaiah is coming from… The previous chapters just before this verse are a long and scathing oracle against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Kingdoms that have turned their back on God.  Isaiah is prophesying that from the root of Jesse (the line of King David) there will rise a new king who will love the Lord, and this is how he will be… the “ideal” king.  So while it is unlikely that Isaiah had Jesus specifically in mind when he made the prophecy, neither is it a coincidence that it is just this kind of king Jesus turned out to be.  It’s a real “chicken and egg” scenario.

So while our 1st reading gives us a glorious vision of what is to come through the love of God, our Gospel gives us dire predictions and warnings is we turn away from God.  This Sunday we get Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist.  Using another of Isaiah’s prophecies about the announcement of the deliverer, Matthew gives us a good description of John, not only about what he looks like, but how he feels about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the perceived hypocrisy employed by those charged with following and teaching God’s law.  John mission and baptism is a call for repentance.

Meanwhile, our 2nd reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us of the important of the Scriptures, and how provide endurance and encouragement.  Further, Paul explains that while the Hebrew scriptures are meant to give us hope, we also need to welcome everyone as Christ welcomed them… meaning that, just as Isaiah’s vision showed this new King to be a beacon for all nations, that the Gentiles are aosl to be welcomed so they might give glory God.

So what is our common thread in these readings?  The Foundations in Faith text we use for RCIA suggests the theme as “Justice and Peace as Signs of the Messianic Era.”  What does that mean?  Clearly that can be seen more directly from the first reading than the Gospel, but there is a connection in that those who are genuine in their repentance… that is those who strive for peace as pictured in the first and second reading, can indeed bring Isaiah’s vision to life… the vision of the Kingdom of God. 

Catholic Update:
Advent Day by Day:  Opening Doors to Joy
‘Light of Faith’:  Key Themes from Pope Francis’ First Encyclical

Hopefully you all had a joyful and relaxing Thanksgiving Holiday, and avoided the commercial mayhem that seems to have overtaken our culture.  I think our Holy Father's most recent comments about capitalism bears some careful consideration...  As Advent is a time of reflection, don't just rely on what the media has said, take the time to read it for yourselves and decide:  Apostolic Exhortation:  Evangelii Gaudium