The best place to look for the meaning of Christmas is the scriptural readings for these next four weeks. A timely source I suggest we add to them is the recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel.”
The Old Testament readings for today and all through the 1st Week of Advent are from Isaiah. Even if you can’t get to Mass, take a look at them, they make wonderful readings for Advent.
Isaiah promises salvation for all people, and one of his favorite images to describe God’s promise is found in this Sunday’s reading: Isaiah 2:1-5. All nations will stream to God’s mountain for instruction. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Wars are no more; a fragmented humanity becomes one.
Quite a claim, considering that Assyrian armies were laying waste the towns and cities of Israel and Judea as Isaiah spoke. But God’s promise trumps all human conquests.
For Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord is Jerusalem, on which the Jewish temple is built. All nations will come there; they will be fed a rich banquet (Wednesday), the poor will be welcomed there (Thursday), the blind will see there (Friday); it’s the rock where people will dwell safely, where children play around the cobra’s den, and the lion and the lamb lie down together (Tuesday). The prophet’s imagery in these readings is strikingly beautiful.
The Gospels for the 1st week point to the fulfillment of the Isaian prophecies in Jesus Christ. The Roman centurion humbly approaching Jesus in Capernaum represents all the nations that will come to him. (Monday) Jesus praises the childlike, who will enter the kingdom of heaven. (Tuesday) He feeds a multitude on the mountain.(Wednesday) He affirms that his kingdom will be built on rock. (Thursday) He gives sight to the blind. (Friday)
Remember, too, that Matthew’s gospel, source of many of our Advent readings, portrays Jesus teaching on a mountain (Isaiah’s favorite symbol) and working great miracles there that benefit all who come. He is the new temple, the new Presence of God, Emmanuel, God with us.
Prophets like Isaiah were brave people, brave enough to speak when all seemed lost. They’re strong people, strong enough to hope when hope seems gone. And something of that prophetic spirit is in Pope Francis, I believe, who last week issued an important exhortation to the church.
He says that we can’t bring the gospel to the world if we don’t know what our world needs. We can’t bring greater human life to our world if we don’t realize what disfigures human dignity now.
What disfigures human dignity today is social inequality. Money had become our god. He speaks of the “tyranny of the financial markets.” We pay attention to a 2% drop in the stock market and ignore the death of a homeless man who dies in the cold. We’re a throw-away society. Not only do we discard things, we discard people. We tend to exploit immigrants and then throw them away. We ignore the economically unproductive, who may be without jobs or skills or socially deprived through sickness or being displaced.
The pope’s message is a hard-hitting restatement of traditional Catholic social teaching. It’s interesting to see a papal document quoted so freely on Tweeter, Facebook and the social media. It’s because he’s touched on something we need to hear.
The front page of the Asbury Park Press this morning seemed to echo the picture the pope painted in his recent address. There’s the big picture of smiling shoppers fresh from the stores on Black Friday holding their precious treasures. Next to it is a story of a homeless man who died in the cold yesterday.
No picture of him at all.