What is it that causes people to hope when all seems lost? Where do they find it? The Women of St. Kateri met virtually last night, and we talked about the story of Ruth. A famine came, and it took the lives of Ruth’s husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law. It left three women, Ruth, Orpah and Naomi, with nothing. They heard there might be food in the land where Naomi originally came, Bethlehem, so they start walking there. After great emotion, Orpah decides to go back to her mother’s house; Ruth and Naomi continue on. As a group of women sharing this story together now and in our world today, we grappled with the desperation of these three women and what could have led them to have hope. Especially Ruth, because Naomi had lived in Bethlehem before and knew people. Ruth left everything she knew behind to be with Naomi, saying the famous lines, “Do not plead with me to leave you or to turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me, and worse, if anything but death separates me from you,” (Ruth 1: 16-17). How is hope found in the darkness?
It seems what we can learn from this story is that hope can be found in courage, hope can be found in each other, and hope is always found in the Lord. Ruth and Naomi trudged onward from Moab to Bethlehem because they couldn’t stay in the famished land with no husbands (not a feminist thought, but it is how it was then). They had no choice but to move forward toward something and someone that might help them. Their courage proves fruitful, because they do find food, land and people that help them in the end. It is that courage (the root “cor”, meaning heart) that keeps them going.
Hope loves company. It is so hard to hope alone. Ruth and Naomi leaned on each other to get through. If one of them got discouraged, the other carried them both. When Naomi begged Ruth to go back home, she eventually stopped urging her, “for she saw she was determined to go with her,” (1:18). They were in this together.
Eventually Ruth marries Boaz who is a relative in her father-in-law’s family, and they have a son Obed who will be the grandfather of King David. Naomi rejoices, and the women around her say, “Blessed is the Lord who has not failed to provide you today with an heir!” (4:14). Our hope is in the Lord. Even when all seems defeated and lost.
In reflecting on all of this – and please take this time if you’re able – I doodled a picture of a bucket. We all have buckets in our hearts that the Lord pours hope into (faith). We have to be brave (courage) and hold our buckets out so we can catch it. Then, it is our job to pour a little into each other’s hearts too (company). Ruth and Naomi, through their courage, company and faith, had full buckets of hope that they were willing to share. May they strengthen us. May we hold out our buckets to the Lord, gather the hope and share it like they did. Naomi and Ruth, pray for us!
1st Reading – Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
This is the first of four ‘suffering servant’ songs from the second part of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet wishes us to see that God acts through this chosen servant to nullify the power of evildoers and so to restore the harmony and peace that arises where God’s justice is acknowledged and lived. Jesus must have loved the Book of the Prophet Isaiah for he modeled his life on these words concerning what it is like to be God’s servant. From his baptism on, Jesus knew that he was called and empowered to be this servant – to bring light, and sight, and freedom to all in bondage. God’s justice was one of compassion for all. Like Jesus by our baptism we are called to do likewise – to try to reproduce God’s justice in the world: father the fatherless, mother the motherless, welcome the stranger, feed the traveler, be hospitable to the alien. By trying with intelligence and perseverance to love all who touch our lives, we can help to bring God’s steadfast love into the reality of our everyday life. (Celebration, January 2005)
The justice or righteousness used here means living in right relationship with God and with other people. This justice acknowledges the human dignity of all people, especially those who are in need. Love of God is intrinsically tied to love poured out on others. Isaiah tells us of a Suffering Servant whose justice does not proceed with force or cruelty. This servant brings forth justice carefully, caringly, gently, so gently that even bruised reeds will not break, nor will smoldering wicks be quenched. This Servant brings God’s love to the weak and fragile and needy. Jesus is the fulfillment of this idea of servant. As disciples (learners) of Jesus we, too, must become suffering servants; it is our highest dignity. In baptism we become like Jesus – priest, prophet, and king – sent to lead others to this love of Christ, to share the Good News of the love, and to offer our lives in service for others.(Celebration, January 2002, and Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 126) What does this “stir to flame” in you?
2nd Reading – Acts 10: 34-380
Cornelius was a gentile – a non-Jew – yet Peter, a faithful Jew, became convinced that he too could be baptized and become a follower of Jesus.
This is echoed in a homily given by Pope Francis: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”
“For God was with him” Do we know this? That God is with us? That God makes it possible for good to happen in (and through!) our lives if we are open to God’s presence? Just think what your life would be like if God’s love was able to flow freely in and out of you. What good would come?
The Gospel — Jesus’ Baptism – Mark 1: 7-11
Why do you think that Jesus was baptized? **If Jesus shows us what God is like, what do we see in this passage? There is a special irony in Jesus’ baptism that speaks to the central message of the redemptive mystery. Jesus enters into radical solidarity with all people, taking upon himself even the condition of our sinfulness, himself having not sinned. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this that he is beloved, and it is from this that he is sent. But how could he be fully human, like us, if he did not sin? We misunderstand this, because we misunderstand our humanity as well as our sin. Jesus reveals to us not only what God is like; he also reveals to us who we are. Our sin in essence is the rejection of the truth of our humanity. Jesus’ utter acceptance of his humanity reverses our sinful rejection of our ‘creatureliness’. His baptism is at the heart of his mission to heal us. He enters into even the wounds of our self-rejection and insecurity, without making the rejection and insecurity his own. He stands with us even if that means that he is seen as a sinner. Here the Word of God is enfleshed for all to see. The Spirit hovers over him and the Voice declares to him and to all of us who share his flesh: “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus IS God’s ancient covenant of love. In him, both halves meet: the divine and the human. (J. Kavaanaugh, S.J. “The Word Encountered”; http://liturgy.slu.edu )
In first-century Israel there were two seasons: rainy (late September to late April) and dry (early May to early September). Most stayed inside during the wet season, so during the dry season people wanted to be out and about, a very important Mediterranean activity. When John was baptizing, it was probably the beginning of the dry period. The Jordan River would be still filled with water and it would now be warmed by the sun. Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the most certain historical events recorded in the gospels. Its significance caused the early Christians first some embarrassment and gradually great insight. Another point: in Marks’ brief account it is a ‘mouth-full’ to say that Jesus leaves his family and village to come to John for baptism. One’s family was the central social institution of his day; this step away from his family would have been seen by his culture as very risky, even shameful. When the voice from heaven claims him as a beloved son, a whole new type of family is set up. Mark expects us who are hearing this gospel to recognize that the source of Jesus’ honor is God not his family or culture. God personally acknowledges Jesus as a beloved, obedient son and servant. (John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context,” http://liturgy.slu.edu )
Jesus’ encounter with his calling and identity at his baptism is the starting point for all that he will undertake. It is because Jesus knows who he is that he does as he does. He trusts the truth that he is God’s beloved; he refuses, even in the face of suffering and death, to believe the lie that God is distant, uncaring, or condemning. At baptism, we are also called sons and daughters of God. In fact, our baptism is our acceptance of that truth. Like Jesus, we need to let that truth fill our lives and overflow into all we do and are. We are never just consumers or spectators or travelers or workers – all of us are God’s beloved, “Working with the Word” http://liturgy.slu.edu .
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?
History of this Feast Day from USCCB: On the last Sunday of each liturgical year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas (“In the first”) to respond to growing nationalism and secularism. He recognized that these related societal ills would breed increasing hostility against the Church. His encyclical reminds the faithful that while governments and philosophies come and go, Christ reigns as king forever.
1st Reading – Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Prophet to his people during their exile in Babylonia, Ezekiel shared their sense of having been failed by their leaders, who, from David onward, had been ideally cast in the role of shepherd of God’s flock, Israel. As history attests, however, that ideal was not always realized and, as a result, the people of God were left unattended, like sheep left to flounder on their own without a shepherd. Right before this reading, Ezekiel reprimands failed shepherds in the past. Only God will restore and lead God’s people to wholeness. It is a message of hope (Preaching Resources from 11/20/2005).
From The Word into Life, Cycle A, 122: Usually we reserve the title, “pastor” for the leader of a religious community. The pastor is to shepherd . . . But perhaps we fail to recognize that every believer is also commissioned, through baptism, to look to the needs of others. We are a priestly people — and priestly people “pastor.” Ezekiel responded to the needs of his despondent exiled community in the early sixth century BC. To encourage them, he presented God as a shepherd. Yahweh would focus attention on the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the sick. Later, in today’s gospel we find Jesus who fulfills this image and also identifies with all those who suffer.
Ezekiel’s vision of a new beginning under leadership may seem to be slightly diminished by the ominous parenthetical phrase included in verse 16: “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.” Some scholars suggest that this phrase is a gloss, later interpolated into the text and, as such, should be omitted. Certainly, it seems unlikely that God would shepherd the people lovingly with one hand and strike them down with the other. Others may be more correct in pointing out that this surprising phrase may be the result of a copyist’s error. Only a yod (smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet) differentiates the Hebrew text (I will destroy) from the Greek (Septuagint), Syrian and Vulgate translations, which read: “I will strengthen the fat and the strong.”
What other meanings do you ‘get’ from all this? What if the fat and strong were fat and strong because they took too much for themselves? (Celebration, Nov. 1999)
What of the reference to goats? Why are goats generally seen as bad in scripture? Goats were often used for sin and guilt offerings. Most Palestinian goats were black (vs the white sheep). Goats often lead the flock, so they can be associated with political leaders; perhaps Ezekiel was comparing the goats to the failed shepherds (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 315). More on goats later.
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
In the Jewish tradition, offering the ‘first-fruits’ of a harvest was a way to bless the entire harvest – a way to consecrate the entire harvest. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s Kingdom, we have the promise and blessing of abundant life in this Kingdom. So death is an enemy that has been overcome!
(Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship for Year A, 581): When Paul talks about Adam, he talks about all of us when we choose that which is bad for us. It is our ‘false-self’ – our deeply insecure self that does not trust that God has created us to be God’s image. As Adam, we reject living in a loving, trusting relationship with our creator. In other words, ‘being Adam’ is being in sin. It is giving into our endless capacity to destroy ourselves. As ‘Adams and Eves’, we are faced with death – with the fact that someday the world will have no time or place for us. It is only our faith in the God that Christ Jesus brings us that saves us from this terrible predicament. In Jesus we find a God who loves us despite our insecurities and wishes to show us the way beyond this death sentence. (Thoughts from John Dwyer, “A Retreat with Paul,” Part 2)
The Gospel – Matthew 25: 31-46
From Exploring the Sunday Readings, Nov.2002: As Jesus explains it, there is only one way to exercise power in this world: for the sake of the powerless. Those with food and drink, should share it. Those who are on the inside should be hospitable to those on the outside. If someone is cold, someone with clothes should keep him or her warm. If someone is sick, those who are well should be attending. If people are oppressed, those who have their liberty should look to their needs. If you want to inherit the kingdom, you can do so right now: Put your hat on and go visit the sick Christ. Set a place at your table for the lonely Christ. Forgive, support, or lift up the burdened Christ. Then, the kingdom begins to grow within us – and among us. At least, as best as we can in a pandemic!
From The Cultural World of Jesus by John Pilch — On Sheep and Goats: Sheep came to symbolize honor, virility, and strength. Goats were considered lustful and lecherous animals. Unlike rams, goats allow other males access to their females. Also, goats were associated with sin, for example, the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-11) Even in Greek culture, the ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. What is the basis for Jesus’ final, definite determination of in-group (sheep) and outgroup (goats)? Hospitality! The kindness and steadfast love that one owed one’s family was to be extended to others, especially those in need.
From Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Linns), p. 49: All of us who have felt alienated, unloved, overwhelmed by shame or helplessly caught in an addiction know what it’s like to be in hell. And all of us who have been welcomed home, who have seen our goodness reflected in the affirming eyes of another or who have been loved into recovery know what it’s like to be in heaven. We all have wheat and weeds within us, sheep and goats. The kingdom of God is within us, and we’re all good goats.
This is a question asked in the book I’m reading, The Other Side of Chaos by Margaret Silf. So I thought I would write down what came to me, and I really encourage you to take time to do the same. And maybe be brave enough to share it.
What does faith really mean to me? It is a free gift of love that is continually offered over and over again, without expectation. It is knowing I am needed and wanted in the world. I am held by someone who knows me, loves me, is with me and is in me. And it doesn’t have to make any sense. It just is.
Sharing it makes it grow. When I get to talk about faith with other people and hear what their experience is, there is an expansion. It is warm, beautiful, loving, safe. When everything else may fail me…it remains, sustains, abides. Faith can connect us with one another even in a pandemic.
Faith does not always make things better. Sometimes I wish it would, but that is not faith’s task. Faith accompanies. Faith lifts our hearts. Faith lives in my heart, but often travels to my gut too. Faith opens and frees me.
And I am grateful for it.
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
John 15: 4-5
**I think I may start a virtual faith-sharing group using this book after Christmas. Please feel free to contact me if that interests you.
A Reading from the Book of Proverbs (31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31)
From M Birmingham: The Book of Proverbs begins with a personification of wisdom, Lady Wisdom. She promises wealth, prosperity, happiness, and a long life to those who follow her council. The end of this book [from which this reading is taken] depicts a woman who has faithfully followed Lady Wisdom’s counsel. The image of the woman is drawn with broad, artistic strokes. This lady ministers in her home to the needs of those who come seeking; she is not an extraordinary or exceptional woman, yet she performs with skill, tenacity, and commitment. She helps all around her, her family and the poor. In her service she finds peace and happiness. She is the ideal for all ‘wise ones.’ (Word & Worship Yr A, 572)
When Dorothy Day died on Nov. 29, 1980, her funeral was attended by all sorts of people – everyone from a cardinal (Terence Cooke) to beggars, from executives to addicts, the sane and the demented: all paid their respects. This woman might be considered a good example of the wise woman, even though she had ‘only’ been a poor single mother herself. But she never let her own inadequacies keep her from doing all she could to welcome and help those around her. She once said: “Do not be ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ . . . In the church, one never needs money to start a good work. People are what are important. If you have people who are willing to work, that is the thing. God is not out done in generosity. (Celebration, Nov. 2005)
From Healing the Purpose of Your Life by the Linns: This worthy wife sounds like she is living out her calling, or as this book describes, her “sealed orders”. It is as if before we were born each of us talked over with God our special purpose in this world. Our sealed orders are something that we agreed to in the context of a loving dialogue with the God who created us. They are not a task we are to complete, but rather our special way of being. They are our essence. Our sealed orders, our unique way of giving and receiving life and love, are the foremost criteria of discernment for decision making. They make for a meaningful life. Consider spending time with the Lord to discover your sealed orders:
- Take a moment to grow quiet and breathe in the love of God.
- Think of a person you know who lives a life that seems rich in meaning and purpose, and imagine yourself in the presence of that person. Breathe in the quality of a clear sense of direction that you feel with this person.
- Now recall moments in your own life when you have felt a clear sense of direction. In your imagination, relive one of these moments. Breathe in again that clear sense of direction. As you do so, how might you begin to describe your sealed orders?
A Reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (5: 1-6)
The problem is, disasters do strike without notice and when we’re not prepared. That’s life. But Paul is talking about the end times again because he thought they were right around the corner. Imagine your own fear if you were to envision that great day as one of panic, rout and confusion. In addition to these images, the Day of the Lord was also associated with cosmic upheaval and universal judgment. Aware of this fear, Paul continually tried to remind his readers that they were children of light and of day, whose faith in Jesus would strengthen and sustain them through every trial and against all adversity. We are already children of light and day.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, (1878-1969), a pastor and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York once compared fear and faith, “Fear imprisons, faith liberates; fear paralyzes, faith empowers; fear disheartens, faith encourages; fear sickens, faith heals; fear makes useless, faith makes serviceable — and, most of all, fear puts hopelessness at the heart of life, while faith rejoices in its God.”
From Healing the Purpose of Your Life by the Linns:
We often reach our final decisions much more easily by focusing on our sealed orders rather than on our fears. When we allow love to touch what we like least about ourselves and the underlying hurts and fears, we have a greater awareness of and capacity to carry out our sealed orders. Know and allow yourself to be a child of the light!
A Reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew (25: 14-30):
The very rich man in this story sounds like an honorable person at the outset. It is only at the conclusion that we learn that he is dishonorable. The 3rd slave even describes him as such, and the rich man agrees with him! The first 2 slaves not only served their master but imitated him. Why not? If you can’t beat the system, join it. The 3rd slave did what most rabbis would later commend as the safest and most honorable course of action for a free man, but maybe not for a slave. (Pilch, the Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 164) So then why is the parable saying the 3rd slave is wrong?
- It may have been to capture the attention of Jesus’ audience.
- The message is we are not to be complacent but increase what Jesus has given us.
- William Barclay makes this point about the gospel’s ending advice: “If someone has a talent and exercises it, he is progressively able to do more with it. But, if one has a talent and fails to exercise it, he will lose it – slowly, but surely. (The Gospel of Matthew, 324)
- From Celebrations, November, 2002 and 2005: Fearfulness only breeds fear and crippling inaction. If we dare to risk ourselves in loving God and others, then Jesus assures us that we will find a God who is eager to share his powerful presence and gifts. Along with this parable, we need to reflect on the kind of God that Jesus shows us — a God who welcomes sinners and who rejoices when the lost are found.
C.S. Lewis once suggested that the ‘one’ talent many Christians fail to ‘invest’ or fear to risk losing is love. In a series of 10 lectures on this subject (later published as The Four Loves) he explains: To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to be sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one — not even to an animal or pet. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safely in the casket or the coffin of your selfishness. But, in that casket– safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, unredeemable. The only place outside heaven where you can be safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.
Let us resolve to become one-talent wonders, willing to risk being fully alive so as to invest our love in God’s service. Let us not dig a hole to bury our love. Let us prefer service to safety, and risk to retreat. (Isn’t that what Jesus did?) We can love as Jesus did: fully, freely, and forever – at least, we can try!
From Healing the Purpose of Your Life by the Linns:
The power to be our real self and to accomplish something in life comes not so much from knowing who we are and what it is we want to do, but rather from feeling loved enough to be and do it. We must open ourselves to this love and grow in our capacity to take it in. As we do so, our capacity to carry out our special way of loving, which is our sealed orders, also grows.
A Reading from The Book of Wisdom (6: 12-16)
From Celebrations, November, 2002: The anonymous author of this book was probably a Greek-speaking Jew, maybe a teacher, who lived in Alexandria in Egypt in the 1st century BC. This was a great center for learning, and this person was obviously well-trained in Greek philosophy, rhetoric, culture and science. In Alexandria, there was a large Jewish community. It seems he wanted to counsel and instruct his fellow Jews so that they might hold fast to their faith traditions and their sacred heritage. He also wanted to encourage the evolving theological thought that included an awareness of life’s ongoing journey, which does not end with death, but continues into eternity.
From Eduard Schweizer: In Hebrew terminology, ‘wise’ means ‘seeing’ or ‘with eyes open.’ Being wise is not about one’s IQ: it is about having eyes and awareness that is open — alert — to what is and what is to come. We do not simply live for now — we must be open to what is yet to come (467).
Rob Bell, a modern theologian, has a podcast where he talks about simple vs. prudent. Simple is keeping things black and white and ignoring what doesn’t fit with a “blinders” way of thinking. Prudence is knowing there is a complexity to life, and that wisdom is seeking the way through that complexity. You can hear the whole thing in his Robcast Episode 123: Wisdom Part 7 – The Simple and Subtle.
From Mary Birmingham: The feminine image of wisdom is commonly used in Hebrew Scriptures. “The words sophia in Greek and hokmah in Hebrew are feminine nouns that mean wisdom.” The Greeks understood wisdom to be “a human endeavor — something to be conquered by sheer human will and mastery. The Hebrew understanding describes wisdom as a readily attainable gift from God, just waiting to be embraced by the receiver. The attributes of Lady Wisdom are also attributes of the living, loving, pursuing God…Lady Wisdom is to be sought after, while we keep in mind that she is readily found by those who love and seek her . . . Wisdom does not just look for the seeker, she ‘hastens to make herself known’. She desires to be ‘perceived.’ She is eager to find a place in the human heart. Ultimately, wisdom is none other than God the Pursuer, who eagerly searches for the hungering human spirit. It is deep within the recesses of those spirits that Lady Wisdom takes up her residence” (565).
A Reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians (4:13-18)
From Celebrations, November 2002: Paul’s imagery here is his attempt “to describe the indescribable and to make known the unknowable. In such an endeavor, human words are but feeble tools.” They are not to be taken as literal — but as the poetry that they are — using the common ways of his culture to talk about such things. The apocalyptic props of trumpets and clouds and archangels are to be “visions of hope” — not a literal description of the end times.
The idea of the Second Coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it very soon; they fully expected to be themselves alive when it came but they were worried about those Christians who had died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would share the glory of that day which was so soon to come. Paul’s answer is that there will be one glory for those who have died and those who survive. The man who has lived and died in Christ is still in Christ even in death and will rise in him. Between Christ and the man who loves him there is a relationship which nothing can break, a relationship which overpasses death (see Romans 8:38-39). From Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 202-203.
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” ~ Vaclay Havel
A Reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew (25: 1-13)
From Celebrations, November 2002: “This parable is clear and simple. The time for choosing Jesus is now; therefore, the time for preparedness is now; the time for ‘packing’ whatever faith, grace, repentance, conversion of heart, good works, and loving responsiveness to God . . . is now. This parable is “not about mercy but about being decisive and prepared. God’s gift is offered, but we must take hold of it, do something with it. Even the message of unconditional love does not override our free choice to ignore God’s intentions for us. Real foolishness is possible . . .”. It’s a parable about responsibility; about doing our job of being a Christian . . . no one else can do our job for us.
What does the ‘oil” represent? William Barclay says that “the oil signifies:
1) a relationship with God; a person cannot borrow such a relationship, he/she must cultivate it himself/herself;
2) character, a person cannot borrow character . . . 3) Others simply say that the oil represents the wisdom and preparedness necessary for recognizing and welcoming the coming Christ . . .” We must be ready “to love the ways and will of God,” (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol II, 320, and Celebration, Nov. 2005)
From Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew: This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel although there are ‘hints’ of it in Luke 13:25. It certainly reflects the community’s struggle over Jesus’ delay in not returning in ‘glory’. Matthew does not want the delay to be the cause of the people not truly living their faith in the here and now. “When Jesus calls on his disciples to keep watch, he is calling on them to take the reality of God so seriously that they can come to terms with its sudden appearance at any moment in their own lives . . . (467).”
Some points made by Pheme Perkins in Hearing the Parables of Jesus (104-110):
- It may be tempting to separate ourselves into the wise and the foolish. Note that the wise don’t resolve the situation or make a big effort to fix it. The foolish are simply caught in their habitual type of behavior.
- The foolish servants do not have any idea of what their real situation is. They persist in showing their attempts to bail themselves out at the last minute. Those attempts fail because it really is the last minute. (And see how Jesus uses (maybe humor?) to portray the wrong way to go about things as opposed to “wailing and gnashing of teeth”.)
- The foolish are excluded due to their own decisions and actions. They fall back on their old patterns. They might have done better to wait outside until morning rather than call attention to themselves by their banging on the door. Reflect on this situation: What if they didn’t go get the oil and waited without lit lamps? Would they have gone to the feast despite their “darkness”? Perhaps Jesus is calling us to be ready for relationship, not necessarily for perfection.
- We all know good, responsible employees who seem to waste vast amounts of emotional energy lamenting the behavior of others who are not performing their job as they should. The parable does not suggest that we should always bail such people out. It suggests that maybe we should suggest ways to them of shouldering their own responsibility.
But remember the 1st reading — wisdom and God seek us out…
1st Reading — The Book of Revelation (7: 2-4, 9 – 14)
This is the last book of the Bible. It abounds in unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism and language. This type of apocalyptic writing uses symbolic colors, metals, garments and numbers. It tries to show graphically how awful evil is and how much it offends the goodness of God. This book has its origin in a time of crisis and persecution, but it remains valid and meaningful for Christians of all time. In the midst of horrible evil and suffering, we are called to trust and remain faithful to Christ and to a God whose care is ever with us – and will be with us for all eternity. No matter what adversity or sacrifice we may endure as Christians, we will end in triumph over evil and pain. This is its enduring message. It is a message of hope and consolation and challenge for all who dare to believe. (The Catholic Answer Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing, pp. 1372-1373)
Symbolism according to Word of God Lutheran Church for the Deaf in Iowa:
East: Or the place the sun rises. This is often connected with God.
Seals: Hide the secrets of the future. Only God knows them and opens them.
144,000: All of God’s people. 12 means God’s people, and 10 means complete. Cubed (10x10x10) is holy and perfect. 144,000 (12x12x10x10x10) is really ALL of God’s people, holy and perfect.
White: Clean & pure, or victory & triumph.
Elders: There are 24 elders: 12 Old Testament and 12 New Testament
4 Living Creatures: Cherubim or seraphim, like God’s personal servants. They are very close to God and His throne and carry His word.
Throne: Where God is, the center of all His glory and power.
We often think of saints and martyrs as sort of ‘out-of-the-world’ holy people – far beyond our own experience or sense of goodness. But they were ordinary folk like us. We should find encouragement along with the challenge. God doesn’t judge us only on our weakness but on our persevering in our willingness to give of ourselves for the good of others. The simple, everyday things we do will wash us in the blood of the lamb. Our smile is a saintly one. Our gesture of kindness is an expression of blessedness. Simple, kind, ordinary ways of giving of ourselves brings the kingdom of God’s love and goodness closer (Living Liturgy, 2003, p.236).
2nd Reading – 1 John 3: 1-3
When Christ appears, we shall see him and be like him. The goal of all great souls has been the vision of God. The end of all devotion is to see God. But that vision of God is not for the sake of intellectual satisfaction; it is in order that we may become like him. There is a paradox here. We cannot become like God unless we see him; and we cannot see him unless we are pure in heart (see Gospel). In order to see God, we need the purity which only he can give (Barclay, p. 75). Is this only for the mystics? No, it is for all of us to wrestle with in our lives. Maybe it is like Thomas Merton’s prayer, “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you…”
But isn’t it true that when we are questioning our faith, our journey, our identity…we are also questioning if we are loved? We need to be reminded that God’s presence is here. God is with us. God’s love will never leave us. It is knit in our bones. And right now, not just when we think we “have it all together”. This letter from John speaks to that inner conflict we sometimes have. Barclay continues to say that John points out we are not merely called the children of God; we are the children of God.
The Gospel – Matthew 5: 1-12a
From Wm. Barclay, The Daily Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1: This Sermon on the Mount could have been “the concentrated memory of many heart to heart” talks that Jesus had with his disciples. Matthew writes that Jesus “sat down” – the typical position of a rabbi when he was teaching.
Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
The Greek word for poor that is used here is ptochos. It means absolute and abject poverty. It describes the one who has nothing, a beggar. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, the idea of poverty underwent this kind of development: it meant poor, and because they were poor they had no power, or help or influence or honor or prestige. Finally, because of all this, they had no hope except to put their whole trust in God. So the poor came to be described as the one who was humble and totally reliant on God: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” (Ps. 34:6)
**We must be careful not to think that Jesus is saying that actual material poverty is a good thing. Jesus would never declare ‘blessed’ a state where people live in slums and have not enough to eat. That kind of poverty we as Christians are called to remove.
Blessed are they who mourn . . .
The word used here for mourning is the strongest word for grief in the Greek language. It is the passionate lament for a loved one. It is the kind of grief that cannot be hidden. It is a sorrow that calls for compassion from others – and that Jesus reassures us will come from God. God does not send ‘suffering’ – but God can help us cope with it – and even learn from it. Sorrow can ‘drive’ us to the deep things of life. We are also called by Jesus to be people who deeply care about others, who empathize and feel with them. As God became one of us in Jesus, so are we called to unite with others. It is right to be detached from things, but it is never right to be detached from people. We are asked by Jesus to care intensely about the sufferings and needs of others – to mourn over the evil and sickness and blindness in this world – to work with God to comfort and overcome the suffering where we can.
Blessed are the meek . . .
The Greek word for meek, praus, expressed a great ethical idea. It was the happy medium between too much and too little anger. It was also commonly used to describe an animal that had been domesticated, trained. It was also the opposite of pride and “lofty-heartedness’. It meant true humility. It is a quality that helps us to realize the truth about ourselves — that we need to learn and to be forgiven – that we need to be God-controlled: gentle towards others and open to God’s Holy Spirit.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst . . .
Few of us really know what it is to be hungry or thirsty. In our abundance, we rarely starve for food or die of thirst – even if we use these words often. Yet, this is the kind of hunger and thirst that Jesus is talking about –a starving and thirsting for goodness, for what is right. God does not care just about our achievements, but also about our dreams – our yearnings – our hungers. If we hunger and thirst for God’s goodness, Jesus tells us that God will supply our need.
Blessed are the merciful . . .
The Hebrew idea for mercy that Jesus is using means the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin until we see things with his/her eyes, think things with his/her mind, and feel with his/her feelings. This is what God did in Jesus: God came to be one with us. Jesus is asking us to let God help us to reach out in the same way to others.
Blessed are the pure in heart (clean of heart) . . .
The Greek words for pure is katharos; it has a variety of meanings. It means clean, such as soiled clothes that have been washed clean. It was also used to describe corn or wheat that had been winnowed or sifted and cleansed of all its chaff. It also was often used to mean unadulterated or unmixed – such as a pure metal or wine. Jesus is calling us to be people who are sincerely who we are – not to be fake or have hidden agendas.
Blessed are the peacemakers . . .
The Hebrew idea of peace is expressed in the word shalom. It means everything which makes life good, full, healthy. It is the presence of all good things. We are called not just to be peace-lovers, but peace-makers. It can be that if we love peace in the wrong way, we may allow a dangerous or threatening situation to develop and not take any action to prevent it because we ‘just want peace and quiet.’ As peacemakers, we are not to pile up troubles for another day, but to do all we can to create life-giving situations. What this beatitude is demanding is that we do not passively accept things because we are afraid of the trouble of doing anything about them, but the active facing of things and the making of peace even when the way to peace is through struggle. We are to make the world a better place for all to live in – to help create right relationships with all others. Peacemakers are people in whose presence bitterness cannot live – people who bridge the gulfs and heal the broken – and sweeten the bitterness of life. Such people do God’s work.
Blessed are those who are persecuted . . .
Jesus is honest; being his follower is not going to be easy. But it is the way God will bless this world with God’s presence and strength. It is the way to abundant life. Jesus wants us to remember that despite persecution and hardship, “Our help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121)
This feast day was originally one for the early martyrs, when there were so many that all the names could not be listed. This is long before there was anything official about canonization. Also, in the New Testament all baptized Christians were called saints, hagioi, holy ones. The Greek means, ‘called as saints.” (R. Fuller, “Scripture In Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu. ) Who do you think of on this day?
The Communion of Saints is an important reminder that our relationship with God and with Christ is both vertical and horizontal, and that our relationship is always mediated. “In the lives of those who shared in our humanity and yet were transformed into especially successful images of Christ, God vividly manifests to humankind his presence and his face. He speaks to us in them, and gives us a sign of his Kingdom, to which we are powerfully drawn . . . our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ.” (R. P. McBrien, Catholicism, Vol.II, 890; Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church)
Those in heaven live fully with God,
yet they remain united to us in love . . .
They pray for us.
They worship with us.
They lend us their spiritual strength in our weakness . . .
In the Eucharist, the whole communion of Christ,
living and dead,
gathers around the table . . .
we experience a profound closeness
with those who have gone before us . . .
It is a marvelous gathering of heaven and earth! (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,#49)