Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Presentation of the Lord, 2014

February 2nd is the date chosen by the Church to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  Since this date falls on a Sunday this year, we take a break from our readings for Ordinary Time to celebrate with these special readings:

The Word for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 24:7, 8, 9, 10
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40 or Luke 2:22-32

While the Catholic Church today refers to this day as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, traditionally it has also been called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Candlemas was a time where beeswax candles were blessed for use throughout the year.  Today the celebration focuses more on the prophecy of Simeon, and Pope John Paul II chose it as a time for renewal of religious vows (not to be confused with priestly renewal of vows, which usually takes place on Holy Thursday at the Chrism Mass, or I’ve also seen it done as part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper).

Our first reading comes from the Prophet Malachi.  Coming from the mid-4th century BCE, Micah was a contemporary of Nehemiah’s speaking to a community that is now a few generations past the return from the Babylonian Exile.  Malachi knows that the Lord loves Israel, but is concerned that Israel isn’t returning that love sufficiently.  In order to help the people see the correct path, he says in today’s passage that the Lord will send his messenger who will purify the people and make them again pleasing to the Lord.  Not surprisingly, we Christians see Jesus as this messenger.

Our second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Where Malachi has told us the mission of this new messenger, this passage from Hebrews has the author telling us why this messenger is worthy… in essence, because he came as one of us, was tested and suffered like us, he is in the best position to help us, and that it was us, mere mortals and not angels, that he chose to help.

This takes us to our Gospel with a story that’s unique to Luke.  Part of the infancy narratives, it tells the story of bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, “when the days were completed for their purification.”  There’s actually two reasons for this… the “purification” is a ritual for mothers as prescribed by Mosaic Law (thus the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin), but as this passage also mentions, “every male… shall be consecrated to the Lord”.  This should not be confused with the circumcision, which takes place 8 days after birth, but at the 40 day mark.  These details, however, only serve to set the scene, because the real story here is when them meet Simeon the Righteous… an elder wise man of the Temple who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.  They also meet an old prophetess, Anna, who was the daughter of Phanuel, of the Tribe of Asher, who also accepts Jesus as the Messiah.

But what’s really going on with this story?  Who are these old prophets and why is this story significant?  And then we have Luke, the evangelist to the Gentiles, giving us lessons on Mosaic Law (something you would expect more from Matthew).  Without unpacking this too much, Luke is going to great lengths to convince his readers that Jesus was indeed who he said he was.  Today’s Gospel serves to validate that Jesus is the Messiah for both the Jews and the Gentiles.  A devout Jewish family, following ritual customs, yet living in the former Northern Kingdom… the land of the Samaritans… the Gentiles.  His prophecy was foretold by the scriptures (remember our first reading from Malachi?), and this prophecy was validated by both Simeon, an elder of the Temple (and likely a Levite), and by Anna from the Tribe of Asher, which was the Northern most of all the Tribes (in the former Northern Kingdom which fell to the Assyrians).  And this validation happens where?  In Jerusalem… in the Temple… the center of Jewish worship.  For Luke, these signs clearly point to Jesus as the man of prophecy and destiny.

Catholic Update:
Jesus the Jew
Finding the Heart of Jesus’ Life:  Looking at Jesus in the Gospels

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

For the past two weeks our readings have focused on the Baptism of the Lord… that moment where John baptizes Jesus in the Jordon river.  This was a significant moment because it marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry… the passing of the prophetic torch from John to Jesus.  From here we follow Jesus, literally and figuratively, into Ordinary Time…

Isaiah 8:23-9:3-1
Psalm 27-1, 4, 13-14
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Matthew 4:12-23

Our first reading comes from early Isaiah.  The Northern Kingdom (Israel) has fallen to the Assyrians, and the people of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) fear they are next.  But over some time a new regime has taken has hold of the former Israel, and Isaiah sees this not only as benevolent, but a useful example of God’s mercy.  Lands that were in anguish and darkness now “have seen a great light.”  This light shines from a land that now has a large non-Israelite (Gentile) population, and Isaiah hopes this will convince his fellow Israelites in the South that one only needs to put their trust in the Lord.

These very same words come to us again in our Gospel from Matthew.  After his baptism (which was our gospel from two weeks ago) and his temptation in the desert, Jesus sets out to start his public ministry.  John has been arrested, so it would seem Jerusalem is no longer a safe, and Jesus goes to Galilee.  Why Galilee? First, it’s sufficiently far enough away from Jerusalem (some 65-75 miles north).  Second, it’s not far from his home in Nazareth.  Most importantly to Matthew, however, is that is fulfils the prophecy from Isaiah, which we heard in our first reading, and hear again in our Gospel… that this great light will rise from Zebulun and Naphtali… what we know as Galilee.  The longer version of our gospel has Jesus gathering his first Apostles… the brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew, along with James and his brother John.

Our second reading continues our journey through Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. It is apparent that some division has grown within this new Christian community in Corinth, so he reminds them that it is Christ we follow, and no one else. If we were to draw a theme for these readings, it would be commitment.  Isaiah’s commitment to the Lord. Paul’s commitment to the. Jesus’ commitment to his mission. Another word for this type of commitment would be vocation. Following Christ is a vocation, in the truest understanding of the word. A vocation is not just a call to the priesthood or the religious life, but a way of forming one’s daily thoughts and actions to the Gospel.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

With the Christmas Season and all its celebrations now behind us, we venture forward into Ordinary Time where we begin our journey of the story of Jesus.  Last week we celebrated Jesus’ baptism which marks the beginning of his ministry.  This week our readings focus on who, exactly, this Jesus person is, and what happens after his baptism…

The Word for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
John 1:29-34

Our first reading comes again from Isaiah.  For some time now our readings from Isaiah have been introducing us to the “servant of the Lord”… the chosen one who is to come.  Today’s reading continues with another of his “servant songs.”  This week from chapter 49, he tells us that this servant was formed in the womb… created and destined to be the chosen one. Indeed, this is what we believe of Jesus, but it is important to note that this idea of being “formed in the womb” is not new.  In fact, this is how many of the prophets saw their calling.  This saying, therefore firmly establishes the servant as a prophet.  What is this prophet’s mission?  Isaiah is quite clear… to bring back Jacob and Israel to the Lord, and further, make their light shine as a light to all nations.  Remember, Isaiah at this point is speaking of a return from their Exile. Jacob, refers to the northern kingdom (which fell to the Assyrians) and Israel refers to the Southern kingdom (which fell to the Babylonians).  It is not only a job description for this servant, but a message of hope for those in exile.

Our second reading comes from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians.  As is typical in Ordinary Time, our second reading doesn’t necessarily coincide with the theme established in the first reading and the gospel, but instead focuses on a more in-depth study of the Epistles.  For this current stretch of Ordinary Time (through to March 2nd) we will be spending the entire time with this letter.  Not surprisingly, this week’s second reading is from the opening “greeting” of the letter, where he greets the community and its leader. Sosthenese.  It is not entirely out of place this Sunday, however, because in Paul’s opening line, he declares himself to be “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,”  That is to say… called to be a servant and prophet of the Lord.

This takes us to our Gospel, which picks up the story where we left off last week, which as you may recall, was Matthew’s telling Jesus’ baptism.  That story, however, was fairly short and to the point, and in their wisdom, the Church fathers wanted us to pause for a moment to understand the significance of this event. This brings us to John’s Gospel this week, where in typical Johnian fashion, pauses in his narrative to remind us why what we just saw was so significant. Here John the Baptist is repeating what just happened (complete with the spirit in the form of a dove).  This is John’s way (both the Baptist and the Evangelist) of passing the torch to Jesus.  If our narrative about Jesus is to have any meaning, his credentials must be impeccable and unimpeachable.  Jesus IS the servant. Jesus is the “chosen by God” that Isaiah foretold.  He is, as the gospel says, the Son of God.”  In fact, these are but a few of the names given to Jesus.  Scripture and Tradition have given him many names in the hope that in those names we will recognize him for who he was, and is still for us today.

Catholic Update:
Finding the Heart of Jesus’ Life:  Looking at Jesus in the Gospels
Four Faces of Jesus


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Baptism of the Lord, 2014

With this Sunday’s celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church brings the Christmas Season to a close and transitions to a period of Ordinary Time.  Baptism marks a new beginning…  a rebirth.  For Jesus, this marks the beginning of his ministry, and serves as an excellent transition from the infancy narratives to the story of his life and ministry.  So this week we begin a new journey…

The Word for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

Our first reading, from the Isaiah, tells us about “the servant of the Lord”… in this case, the prophet chosen by God to save Israel.  This prophecy comes from the section of Isaiah that predicts the coming glory for Israel.  That not only will he raise it up in gleaming splendor, but through is servant, make it a beacon, a shining example to all the other nations.  No small task given that Israel, at this time, is still living in exile in Babylon.  What we have in this passage is an example of how this new servant will be… not a voice crying out in the wilderness like John the Baptist, but one who does “not cry out, nor shout”… one who cares for those in need by telling us he will not break the bruised reed or quench the dimming candle.  Through his kindness that justice will be established.

Our second reading, in honor of the feast, comes not from the Hebrew Scriptures, but from the Acts of the Apostles.  In it we hear a brief story of Jesus and the good he did in God’s name.  What makes this story amazing is not what Peter is talking about, but where and to whom.  Peter is telling this story in the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion from Italy… that is, someone who is not native to the region.  Further, this house is in the city of Caesarea, a city built by Herod the Great in honor of Caesar Augustus, located on the coast some 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem.  Not only has Peter found a convert in a foreigner, but in was Cornelius who sought out Peter based on a vision he had of an angel of the Lord.  It is a story that not only speaks powerfully to the prophecy from Isaiah, but is a suitable bridge to our Gospel.

Our gospel, not surprisingly, is from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  Matthew’s version, however, has an interesting twist, where John initially refuses to baptize Jesus, saying instead that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus.  This is a formality that Jews of the day would understand, but gets a little lost on a Gentile audience, but Jesus manages to convince John to do it.  Jesus knows that for scripture to be fulfilled, he needs to be recognized by John.  Not only does John know Jesus, but upon being baptized God himself recognizes his servant with a voice from the heavens for all to hear.  It is a fitting start to our new journey with Jesus through Ordinary Time. 

Catholic Update:
Sacraments of Initiation:  Sacraments of Invitation
Sacraments of Initiation:  God’s “I Love You”
Baptism:  Our Lifelong Call
Confirmation:  A Deepening of Our Christian Identity
Eucharist:  Understanding Christ’s Body

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Epiphany of the Lord 2014

Traditionally the celebration of the Epiphany would mark the end of our Christmas Season (the Twelve Days of Christmas), whereupon we continue the celebration with the Octave of Epiphany.  With the revised Liturgical Calendar for the US, however, we celebrate the Epiphany on the first Sunday after New Years Day, and extend the Christmas season through to the second Sunday after New Years with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.

The Word for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah.  Here the prophet sees a glorious vision for Jerusalem… the city shall be radiant and become a beacon for all the nations.  These later chapters of Isaiah reflect the hope for the end of the Babylonian Exile, and the reconciliation of God to the people of Israel.  As seen through our Christian eyes, this passage also speaks to our hope for the messiah, a savior who’s greatness will be seen by all nations, especially the dromedaries from the east bearing gifts of gold and frankincense (a detail not lost on Matthew when we get to his gospel).

While our first reading foreshadows the coming of a messiah, our second reading reminds us that this savior is not just for the people of Israel, but for all nations and all peoples.  This message is particularly important to the new Christian community Paul founded in Ephesus, which being nearly 1000 miles from Jerusalem (by land or by sea), had a large gentile population.

Our gospel, in a story unique to Matthew, tells us the story of the coming of the maji.  While many of us are familiar with the legends surrounding the maji and the importance they play in the infancy narratives, today’s gospel actually tell us very little about them.  While we have come to know them as the “wise men,” the “kings,” or the “astrologers,” from various traditions, our text uses the word “maji,” a Latin variant from the original Greek “magos,” which may refer to the ancient Persian religious cast.  As to the number of “magi,” the scripture is also unclear.  While we commonly think of “the three wise men,” some traditions indicate that there could have been as many as twelve.  The number three traditionally coming from the number of gifts, one from each of the maji.  In fact, many of the details of the legend come from non-biblical sources and traditions, and makes for fascinating reading.

Regardless of exactly who they were, where they come from, or how many of them there were, we need to remind ourselves that, as is typical when reading scripture, these details are not important to the narrative.  There are deeper layers of this story that need our attention.  The fact that foreigners from the East could see the truth of the messiah better than many of Jesus’ own people.  The fact that King Harod let fear and jealousy guide him instead of God and the prophets.  Matthew uses these important lessons to help us all see the truth and learn from his story… a story that is just beginning, and will carry us through the rest of this year.