Tag Archives: infancy narratives

December 19: Zechariah in the Temple

“In the days of King Herod” Luke’s gospel begins his story of the birth of John the Baptist. Ominous days. The priest Zechariah goes into the temple bearing incense to worship the Lord. An angel appears next to the altar of incense, where we expect an angel to be. “Your prayer has been heard,” the angel says to the old priest. “Your wife will bear you a son.”

Surely, the old priest was no longer praying for a son. Childbearing was over for his wife and him. The promise of new life was long gone and there’s no hope for a child.

But the angel promises a child “great in the eyes of the Lord” to be called John, who would more than fulfill their hopes, turning “many of the children of Israel to their God.”

The old priest doubts and is punished with silence. He won’t speak until after the child is born. Then he speaks again,  as he announces to those at his birth that “his name is John.”

You lose your voice when you lose hope in God’s promises. You get it back  when you believe.When John is born, Zechariah sings a song of praise at God’s unexpected  gift.

The Communion Prayer for today’s Mass says: “As we give thanks, almighty God, for these gifts you have bestowed, graciously arouse in us, we pray, the desire for those yet to come.”

Never doubt the gifts God wants to give, Zechariah tells us. Doubt silences us. God’s gifts give us a voice.

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

Readings here.

My Soul Proclaims God’s Greatness

Visitation

St. Luke offers a beautifully crafted narrative of the infancy of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of his gospel. Mary concludes her visit to Elizabeth with a song of praise to God, who is “mighty and has done great things to me.” Her Magnificat.

After John the Baptist’s birth, his father Zechariah sings his praise to God. “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free.” His Benedictus.

The Benedictus is sung or said in the church’s morning prayer each day as the silence of night ends and the day is blessed.  “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

Every evening we pray Mary’s “Magnificat” at evening prayer in thanksgiving for the blessings of the day. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…God has come to the help of his servant Israel, remembering his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” The promises of God remain and with Mary we rejoice in them now and wait for their fulfillment to come.

Commentators on Luke’s gospel say that Luke probably uses Jewish Christian prayers applying them to Zechariah and Mary. The New American Bible, for example, says: “ Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story.”

Ancient prayers, the Magnificat and the Benedictus appropriately are attributed to Mary and Zechariah. They’re our prayers too.

Gracious God,

Let me not doubt your promises, your tender mercies, but let me rejoice in them as Mary and Zechariah did, and look for their fulfillment, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Advent Readings: Week 3

balaam

Readings here

The gospel  readings for this week are about the unbelief of those you would expect to recognize Jesus, namely, the Jewish leaders and teachers in the temple, but they reject him. They also rejected John the Baptist before him. Yet, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners believed in him and they also believed  in John, Jesus says.

Faith in Jesus doesn’t come from having knowledge or holding places of privilege and power.

On Monday this year, we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and so we miss the the wonderful reading from the Book of Numbers assigned for that day. It’s about Balaam, a foreign prophet, who’s offered handsome pay if he will put a curse on the tribes of Israel. Instead, Balaam, “whose eyes are true, who sees what God sees and knows what God knows,”  blesses the tribes of Israel.

He promises a “star shall rise from Israel and a staff should appear from Jacob.”.

Even his donkey gets it right. He won’t take Balaam to the place where they want him to curse the Israelites. I guess that’s one reason a donkey appears at the manger in Bethlehem.

From December 17th onward, the Advent weekday readings at Mass turn to events  immediately before the birth of Jesus. On this day we listen to his  genealogy from Matthew’s gospel, beginning with Abraham and ending with Joseph, the husband of Mary. (Matthew 1, 1-17)

December 18th, we read the announcement of the angel to Joseph, “Son of David,” about the conception and birth of the Child. Joseph figures prominently in Matthew’s story of the birth of the Messiah. He will name him Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1,19-25)  In the first reading Jeremiah prophesies a return of God’s people to their own land. God’s promises to David will be fulfilled. (Jeremiah 23,5-9)

The gospels for the remaining weekdays of Advent are from Luke, who sets the stage for Jesus’ birth on a grand scale. Herod the Great rules in Palestine when the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the temple in Jerusalem. (December 19th) but the world is about to be changed.

We can’t put Zechariah among the temple priests and rulers who reject Jesus, but he ‘s a warning just the same that “good” people can also hesitate before the mystery of the Word made flesh.

 

 

The Gospel of St. Matthew and the Virgin Birth

holy family

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel begins. He describes it through the experience of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew’s account is summarized in the creed. “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…who by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

Is this true? Here’s Pope Benedict XVI:

“The answer is an unequivocal yes. Karl Barth pointed out that there are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb, in which Jesus did not remain, nor see corruption.

“These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain–but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point. God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter also belong to him?

“Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing with the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense, these two moments – the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb–are the cornerstones of faith.

“If God does not have the power over matter then he is simply not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.”

(The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, pp 56-57 )

Like the temple rulers in Jerusalem who rejected Jesus in his time, there are those who reject him today.

You can find the scripture readings for today here.

What Does Christmas Mean?

On Thursday, December 20th, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an article on the meaning of Christmas for the Financial Times of London. So different from the recent article in Newsweek by Bart Ehrman, struggling over what’s historical in the infancy narratives and what isn’tadoration. The pope’s article, summarizing his recent book, is about what the birth of Jesus says to our world today. Here’s his text from Vatican Radio:

A time for Christians to engage with the world

“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” was the response of Jesus when asked about paying taxes. His questioners, of course, were laying a trap for him. They wanted to force him to take sides in the highly-charged political debate about Roman rule in the land of Israel.

Yet there was more at stake here: if Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah, then surely he would oppose the Roman overlords. So the question was calculated to expose him either as a threat to the regime, or a fraud.

Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicization of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world.”

The Christmas stories in the New Testament are intended to convey a similar message. Jesus was born during a “census of the whole world” taken by Caesar Augustus, the Emperor renowned for bringing the Pax Romana to all the lands under Roman rule. Yet this infant, born in an obscure and far-flung corner of the Empire, was to offer the world a far greater peace, truly universal in scope and transcending all limitations of space and time. Jesus is presented to us as King David’s heir, but the liberation he brought to his people was not about holding hostile armies at bay; it was about conquering sin and death forever.

The birth of Christ challenges us to reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life. While Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection, even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene?

Christmas can be the time in which we learn to read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but as the one in whom we recognize God made Man. It is in the Gospel that Christians find inspiration for their daily lives and their involvement in worldly affairs – be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange. Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.

Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.

Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life.

Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.

Because these goals are shared by so many, much fruitful cooperation is possible between Christians and others.

Yet Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God. Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar.

From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.

In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged.

Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.

Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives

You wish they would read it instead of looking for a headline. I mean the pope’s new book “Jesus of Nazareth, the Infancy Narratives”  Image Books, 2012. From the headlines the last few days you would think all the pope said was that the ox and the donkey weren’t around the manger at Christ’s birth, and he’s joining others who question the historical reliability of this event.

The contrary is true. As in his previous books on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict engages what modern scriptural scholarship says about this section of the gospels. (True, he depends on German and French scholarship for the most part) But if anything, the pope sees a swing from not accepting a history behind the infancy narratives to a recognition of historical facts.

But he does more than affirm history. He sees meaning behind the facts. So the manger of Jesus to him is the Lord’s first throne, the humble temple where he comes to feed the poorest of the world.

“So the manger has in some sense become the Ark of the Covenant, in which God is mysteriously hidden among men, and before which the time has come for ‘ox and ass’–humanity made up of Jews and Gentiles–to acknowledge God.”

I downloaded the book yesterday. A good book to read in Advent. Here’s a theologian and mystic at work. I think his three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth will stand as his lasting contribution to the church.