1st Reading – Isaiah 9: 1-6
Of course, when Isaiah first wrote this passage he was not thinking of Jesus – or of a ‘far-future messiah.’ He was trying to encourage King Ahaz (the weak and unwise king at the time) to be strong and to rely on God’s wisdom and power. He was promising the birth of a son who unlike Ahaz would be faithful, prudent, and far-sighted – and in this way would be Immanuel, God-is-with-us. It seems that Isaiah’s hope never did become reality; this expectation, though, gave rise to the yearning for a true Messiah – one born to bring God’s presence to the people. (Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year C, 77-78)
2nd Reading – Titus 2: 11-14
This letter was written not to a community but to an individual in regards to their pastoral duties. Many commentators feel Paul himself probably did not write this letter; most likely a disciple of Paul wrote it wanting to give the advice that he felt Paul would have given. In this passage he is simply reminding all that Christ’s coming in time and history [in birth and on a cross] is about our lives right now – and in the ultimate future hope of a second coming in fullness and light. Our task we are told is not to retreat from the world but to be “eager to do what is good” – to let our very lives reflect the goodness of our Lord. It is only in the light of the ‘second coming’ – the final and full triumph! — that we can celebrate the first coming!
(R. Fuller, “Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509; M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Wrbk. for Yr C, 77-78)
From John Kavanaugh, S.J. “The Word Engaged,” http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509:
Christmas is a celebration that is concrete, particular, and universal. It is about a past event of a small baby and about humanity and the heavens. It is about us. As the letter to Titus reminds us, Christ is central to us and our salvation (the fullness of life and health). The Spirit of God is lavished on us through Jesus who saves us and justifies us through the wondrous mercy of God. We all become heirs in hope of eternal life. Christmas means that God not only created space and time: God entered them, became our flesh and blood, our kin, our child . . .
The Gospel – Luke 2: 1-14
The Infancy Narratives pose difficult problems for those who try to use them to reconstruct some actual history for there are agreements and also discrepancies. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu.) It is more about the truth of God’s entrance into human history through the person of Jesus – born as one of the poor and insignificant, tracing his life to two inconsequential towns (Nazareth and Bethlehem). His power is not about ‘government overthrow’ but about conversion and openness to God’s love. In Jesus God comes for the outcast, for the despised, and ‘unclean’ – the shepherds. Angels bring messages: God is offering salvation to everyone. The phrase “people of good will” is not meant to be an exclusion – it is meant to refer to all people who because of this birth, are objects of divine favor — all is permeated with God’s life and love and holiness. (M Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook Year C, 79-80)
From John Foley, S.J. “Spirituality of the Readings” http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509:
The Christmas story urges us to ask: “What does it mean to be fully human?” Since God chose to become human, the whole meaning of Christmas rests on the answer. Is it about all the ‘Martha-like-work’ that the season brings? Is it the ‘family tradition’ of dinners and presents and decorations to which we cling? But what about those who have no family – or are sick and alone? Jesus’ life, too, had fun and laughter along with the suffering and poverty. Maybe full humanity has to do with loving and being love. Isn’t love the aching desire that lies under all the rest? Don’t we all long for a love that will at last be carried out? A love we can trust? And a love that we might be bold enough to love in return? In a word, to be fully human means allowing enough room inside ourselves to let God and others in. It means letting go of all those things we think will save our lives (possessions, honors, importance, bigness), so that we can relate to God and to others. In the busy-ness and noise of this season, we need to find time to listen for the stillness. We may be only inches away from the emptying-out that will let God be born inside of us. Let it be!
Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing:
***Thought on Jesus’ Incarnation: The Word was made flesh and dwells among us. (John 1: 14) The incarnation is still going on and it is just as real and as radically physical as when Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, walked the dirt roads of Palestine (p.76).
God takes on flesh so that every home becomes a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink become a sacrament. God’s many faces are now everywhere, in flesh, tempered and turned down, so that our human eyes can see him. God, in his many-faced face, has become as accessible, and visible, as the nearest water tap” (p. 78). We are the Body of Christ. This is not an exaggeration, or a metaphor . . . The word did not just become flesh and dwell among us – it became flesh and continues to dwell among us (p. 79-80). This is the core of Christian spirituality . . . God’s presence in the world today depends very much upon us. We have to keep God present in the world in the same way as Jesus did . . . The word that he spoke is not heard in our contemporary world unless it is proclaimed by the community . . .As God once acted through Christ, so he now acts through those who are conformed to the image of his Son (p.80). The God who has become incarnate in human flesh is found, first and foremost, not in meditation and monasteries, albeit God is found there, but in our homes (p.100).
Luke’s Birth Story – Notes from William Barclay
The Roman Census — In the Roman Empire periodic censuses were taken with the double object of assessing taxation and discovering those eligible for compulsory military service. The Jews were exempt from military service so any census would have been only for taxation. In Egypt they have discovered much evidence of these censuses – and that they were taken every 14 years. If that pattern held true, then Jesus’ birth might have been in about 7 or 8 B.C. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 A.D. but he did hold an official post there from 10 -7 B.C. It was also the custom in Egypt to have every man go back to his home origin; it may also have been the case in Israel.
Bethlehem — Nazareth was 80 miles from Bethlehem. (Its name means the ‘place of bread’.) The accommodations for travelers were most primitive. ‘Inns’ were merely a series of stalls opening off a common courtyard. Travelers brought their own food. Since there was little room according to Luke, Mary and Joseph would have stayed in the common courtyard – or perhaps found shelter in a cave, also common around this town. The fact that there was no room for Jesus was symbolic of what would happen to him: rejection would be his fate: the only place where there was room for him was on the cross. He still seeks to enter the crowdedness of our hearts . . .
Swaddling clothes were the common way to ‘dress’ an infant. They consisted of a square of cloth with a long, bandage-like strip coming off from the corner. The infant would be wrapped in the square and then the long strip was wound round and round about him.
The manger was quite literally the place where animals feed.
Shepherds were despised by orthodox good people of the day. Shepherds were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could simply not observe all the hand-washings and regulations. Their flocks made constant demands on them. They were rough, uncouth, and unclean characters. But these shepherds also served God. Their sheep were the lambs to be one day offered as sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem just 7 miles away. Luke is certainly comparing their lambs with Jesus, the Lamb of God. The shepherds, the unclean and rough, were invited by angels (God’s messengers) to come.
1st Reading – Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11
Some scholars suggest that this prophet may have delivered this uplifting message to his people while standing among the ruins that had once been Jerusalem. With these words of hope, they could begin to rebuild their city – and their lives. It was the ‘year of favor’ from the Lord. A ‘Year of Favor’, or a Jubilee Year, was a time of social reconciliation and economic restitution according to Leviticus 25: 9-19, 23-55. The land was to rest without planted crops. The poor could eat freely of whatever ‘wild crops’ grew. Property that had been once seized, borrowed, or rented was to be returned to its rightful owner. Slaves were to be set free. All debts were to either be remitted or forgiven. For such was the favor and forgiveness that Israel had experienced at God’s hand. (Celebration, December 15, 2002) When you experience and know this kind of joy, you want to DO something about it.
Henri Nouwen reflecting on joy in Here and Now:
Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away…Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety…Joy does not depend on the ups and downs of the circumstances of our lives. Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world…God’s light is more real than all the darkness.
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Verses 16-18 give us 3 marks of a genuine Church: happy, prayerful and thankful. When a Church lives up to Paul’s advice, it will indeed shine like a light in a dark place; it will have joy within itself and power to win others (Barclay’s Daily Study Series, p. 207-208). How are we as Church doing this now? Where can we grow?
In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy…Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise-then you will discover the fullness of your life. ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast
Verse 23: “make you perfectly holy” is also translated (www.biblehub.com):
NIV-sanctify you through and through
NLT-make you holy in every way
KJV-sanctify you wholly
MGE-make you holy and whole
The Gospel – John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in. ~Leonard Cohen
Maybe John the Baptist is the crack, and helps us see the light coming through it.
This gospel may seem out of place with the other two readings. We have been prepared with joy and hope; we have been encouraged with positive words and messages. But John’s message in this gospel is filled with negations: “I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, nor the Prophet . . .” He knew himself to be the “voice of one crying in the desert.” Yet, in that solitary truth and task he found joy. There is comfort and assurance in knowing who we are and what our calling is. There is joy in knowing how to look for the “one who is to come.” John is incomplete by himself: so are we! Let us with John be expectant in the midst of a desert – looking for light in the midst of darkness. Even a tiny flicker of light can dispel the darkest gloom. Maybe then we will be free to discover the many and various ways the Lord Jesus Christ comes into our lives. (Living with Christ, December, 2011, p. 123)
As the questioning continues in today’s passage, and John the Baptist increasingly illustrates no eschatological role, why does he baptize? He replies that his is a water baptism, a Jewish rite of purification, implying a change of heart. There is no immediate or direct comparison with Jesus’ baptism; rather, the emphasis is on the witness to Jesus as one superior to John. Whom do you not recognize (or know) (v26): this is one of John’s key words. The believer is the one who “knows” Jesus in faith; the non-believer remains unknowing. The Johannine narrative centers wholly on the person of Jesus, God’s Son, the Word incarnate, light and life (R. Faley’s Footprints on the Mountain, p. 38).
1st Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
From Mary Birmingham, W & W Wkbk for Year B, p. 61: Today’s reading refers to Israel’s return home (They are still in exile.) as well as the prophet’s commissioning, The heavenly court witnesses and approves God’s command, call, and commissioning of the prophet. So commissioned, the prophet’s word announces a new age of restoration for the people. Through the power of God’s Word, the world will be reconciled. The people stood on the threshold of a new age. The creative Word of God had spoken as it was spoken at the dawn of an earlier age, the creation of the world, and into the hearts of all believers was infused the seeds of new life. God’s glory would be revealed when the people were safely restored and in their own land. For Christians the glory of God is revealed in the advent of the One Who Is to Come. What does all of this mean to you?
A reflection question from Breaking Open the Word of God, Cycle B (p. 26): There is such a tension between wanting something and waiting for it. Children ask, “How many days until Christmas?” This is the plea of all of us. When we become aware of our need for God, then we want to experience forgiveness immediately. Patience. Why is waiting so difficult? What do we learn in our waiting? We’ll explore this more in the next reading.
2nd Reading: 2 Peter: 3: 8-14
From Mary Birmingham, p. 63-64: This letter is a pseudonymous work attributed to the apostle Peter. Most scholars date it around the mid-second century (130-150AD). It is probably the last letter written of all the canonical New Testament documents. Its imagery concerning the ‘end of the world’ was a part of the culture of the times. Total destruction by fire was a popular belief from Persia to the Greco-Roman world. These images were also common in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Such images or opinions are not scientific assertions but mythopoeic images. Some scholars also suggest that the translation of heurethesetai (dissolved by fire) is better translated ‘will be laid bare’. Yet, keep in mind that the main point of this passage is that our God is a patient God – and that we need to use whatever time we have to repent, to change, to be reconciled.
Reginald Fuller adds these three points: 1) Watchfulness is a part of Christian living. 2) Rightly understood, the imminent hope in Christianity is a motivation for the pursuit of holiness and Godliness in life. 3) While we can demythologize our scriptures in order to have them ‘speak’ more clearly to us today, we must also hold dear to the fact that the final goal of history is the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. (“Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu )
The Gospel: Mark 1: 1-8
John’s clothing seems to be taken directly from 2 Kings 1:8 as the traditional ‘dress’ of a prophet. John’s diet also has to do with the truth of the good news he is to proclaim. Locusts were traditionally regarded as God’s instruments of judgment because they were agents of bitter and punishing destruction (Exodus 10:4, Isaiah 33:4, Psalm 105:34). Honey, however, signified peace and plenty and was a symbol of God’s comfort and care (Exodus 3:8, Deuteronomy 6:3). Together, these two ‘ingredients’ seem to announce the dual character of the gospel. Like locusts, the good news of Jesus Christ would lay bare and devour evil; like honey, the gospel would bring comfort, peace and sweet salvation to the repentant sinner. Today, John still stands in our midst. He still calls us to prepare ourselves, our ways, our hearts, our wills, and our world to welcome the challenge and the comfort, the purifying power and the peace that is Jesus. (Celebration, Dec. 2002)
From Mary Birmingham, W & W Wkbk for Year B, p. 65: Mark asserts that the story of Christ really begins with the arrival of John the Baptist. The story begins in the desert by the Jordan’s banks – a place that evokes images from the Hebrew scriptures. The desert was always known as a place of numinous encounters between God and human beings. The desert was also known as a place of retreat, where one could disassociate from the world and enter into Yaheweh’s divine presence (Have you ever been to a desert? Have you ever been on retreat and had it feel like a desert experience?). The Essene community is one such example. The Essenes made their home in the desert at Qumran by the Dead Sea in protest of what they believed to be the unlawful way in which those who were in power at the Temple in Jerusalem came into that power. The Essenes wished to establish a new community of Israel that was pleasing in the eyes of God. Assuming that John the Baptist was a part of this community, how does this information help us understand more from where he is coming from? How does this attitude help us prepare for Jesus?