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Third Sunday of Advent

December 17, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT — Year B (Scripture Readings)

TESTIMONY TO THE LIGHT

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-20

John’s Gospel is very much concerned with the question, “Who?” This Gospel, which probes most intently “Who is Jesus?”, depicts John the Baptist professing adamantly, “I am he who is not!” (vv 19-23, 27). Thus, the negation of John as a personality of importance throws the importance of Jesus into sharp relief. John’s purpose is to point to Jesus, not to be a figure having his own meaning.

The institution of prophecy had been dead for several centuries in Judaism at this time, yet the hope was alive that it would be revived as a preparation for the Messiah (see Ez 7:26; Lam 2:9; and then Dt 18:15-18 and Is 2:1-3). Yet John, although he truly fulfilled this function, denied that he had any importance. A tradition, based on Mal 3:23, that Elijah would return to herald the Messiah, was current. John also denied any relevance of this to himself, even though Jesus expressly affirmed that John was the fulfillment of that expectation (see Mt 11:14; 17:10-13; also Lk 1:17). It is typical of the Gospel of John to lead from an incident and a dialogue into a deeper understanding of the meaning of Jesus. The identity and personality of Jesus, not John, is at issue here.

Note that John’s Gospel here opposes the baptism of water with the baptism of the Spirit (as do the synoptic Gospels: Mk 1:8; Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16), but elsewhere he united water and the Spirit as one (see Jn 3:5).

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11

In chapter 61, the prophet contemplates his mission (vv 1-3), the effect of his message (vv 4-9), and the joy of all people in the fulfillment of God’s word (vv 10-11). The description of the prophet’s role in the opening verses — to proclaim God’s word, which has power to heal and set free in the Spirit — Jesus appropriates to himself in Lk 4:14-21. The word “prophet” means one who speaks for another. The work of the prophet is to make God’s word a living reality among his people. This Jesus did in perfect fullness (see Jn 1:14).

The enveloping and adorning garments of v 10 speak of a joy which is based on the inner reality of salvation — clothes may not “make the man,” but they are always chosen to express what one is.

Responsorial Psalm: Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54

Mary’s canticle, a hymn of praise at the awareness of God’s overwhelming favor toward his “little ones,” picks up and continues the theme of the last verses of the first reading. Response: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Christian rejoicing, based on a sense of trust in God (v 24) is not to be merely an empty and superficial hilarity, but a deep and enduring quality of a Christian life in community and in love. Joy both derives from thankful prayer and gives rise to it (vv 17-18). The work of the Spirit needs to be accepted freely (vv 19-20), yet his manifestation must not be accepted uncritically, but tested (v 21), lest they lead to the evil of division and dissension (v 22). Paul will develop this teaching more fully later in 1 Cor 14. V 23 is not speaking merely of individual wholeness, but the unity and health of the Christian community (the Church) as the Body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12).

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What are the parallels between the roles of John the Baptist and ourselves as Christians?

2. What is praise? What does it mean to praise?

Second Sunday of Advent

December 10, 2017
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT — Year B (Scripture Readings)

PREPARE THE WAY

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel presents the most human and, in many ways, the least polished account of Jesus, yet it begins by clearly affirming that Jesus is the Son of God. The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 aptly describes the role of John the Baptist, who not only points to Jesus by his preaching, but also emphasizes his uniqueness by the contrast of his lifestyle. John imposed on himself a most austere existence to be sure that nothing would distract from his mission to preach the coming of the kingdom of God. His own limited role was highlighted by his rugged simplicity. Jesus — the more powerful one to come after — lived in much more ordinary poverty (see Mt 11:18-19) to show that God dwells where we are. We may have to go out into the desert (literally or metaphorically) to prepare ourselves to receive God into our lives, but we do not find him there. Rather, he finds us in the commonplace happenings of day-to-day life.

The word “baptism” means a bath, a full immersion into water. John immersed repentant sinners as a sign of their sincere change of heart. This baptism powerfully expressed death to an old way of life and a rebirth into a new course, a new intention guiding the direction of one’s life. But this change of heart in itself could not forgive sins and restore God’s life, it could only prepare oneself to receive the gift of forgiveness and new life. Thus, Christian baptism is everything that John’s was, and more: it conveys God’s response to the change of heart, which is really the result of God’s initiative, and signifies the immersion of the repentant sinner into the Holy Spirit who overwhelms him and assures God’s mercy, forgiveness, and gift of new life.

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

The “book of consolation” or “Second Isaiah,” chapters 40-55, was written about two hundred years after chapters 1-39 (about 540 B.C.E.). The anonymous author followed the tradition of the original Isaiah in order to strengthen the faith and patience of the Jews held in exile in Babylon that their deliverance and return to Jerusalem was at hand. This promised event was seen as a new exodus — God leading his people from slavery through the desert into the promised land of freedom. A “sacred highway” had been built in Babylon for processions honoring the god Mardok. The prophet alludes to the same sort of highway built for the Lord to lead his people back home (vv 3-4). The Lord’s glory is manifested in the free praise of his people (v 5). Finally, the Lord in freeing his people is both powerful (v 10) and gentle (v 11). (Note that v 3 is changed when quoted in the Gospels. Isaiah reads “a voice cries: ‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!’” The Gospels, “a voice crying in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” — see Mk 1:3; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23.)

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14

This psalm emphasizes that salvation is not from any human agency, but from the Lord alone. Response: “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.”

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-14

The author of this letter had to face a spirit of discouragement among many Christians at the delay of Christ’s coming. He emphasizes that this apparent delay actually manifests God’s patience — to allow greater numbers to come to repentance. The Christians are advised to hasten the coming of Christ by the goodness of their lives. The end of the present age and the dawning of “new heavens and a new earth” are emphatically seen not as a punishment for wickedness but as the fulfillment of goodness.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. “Baptism” means both a total immersion in something and a passing through. What does this say of your own life? What are you “immersed in”? What do you “pass through“?

2. Deep down, do you want to hasten or delay Christ’s coming? Why?

First Sunday of Advent

December 3, 2018
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT — Year B (Scripture Readings)

AWAKE AND WATCHFUL

Gospel: Mark 13:33-37

Advent begins with a call to watchfulness. This Gospel passage concludes Jesus’ teaching on the signs that would characterize the last days — indeed, those very signs have been a part of every age. Jesus is not giving a schedule to predict his final coming, but rather he is telling what sort of watchfulness is demanded of his followers. We cannot wait passively or occupy ourselves with our own interests, even if they are spiritual interests, but must work diligently for the advancement of his kingdom as his servants —each of us with our own gifts, abilities, and particular tasks (v 34). On the one hand, we are told to open our eyes to read the signs of the times (v 28), but on the other hand, even the vigilant will be surprised at the suddenness of the fulfillment (vv 36-37).

We can catch glimpses of the suddenness and surprise of the Lord’s presence in our day-to-day lives, if we but look with eyes of faith.

First Reading: Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7

These words give voice to the cry of a people who are broken and in need of restoration. They call upon the Lord to return to them and to show again the favor of his presence. Yet they realize that he has not walked out on them, rather it is they who have been unfaithful to him. God is addressed as Father and Redeemer because human attempts at salvation have failed. The sought-for solution is a manifestation of God’s power from on high (63:19), yet this hope stands in contrast to the real fulfillment of God’s power we have experienced — it comes not in awesome splendor but incarnate in humble human flesh: Jesus, Son of Mary.

Note that the entire prayer (63:7-64:11) recalls God’s past favors as motive for confidence in seeking his saving work in the present. This gives us an example of the type of ancient Jewish prayer from which the Christian eucharistic prayer developed.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19

This prayer depicts God as the caretaker of his people, and it utilizes the imagery of a vineyard. Read the whole psalm carefully — it reflects both fear of destruction and danger, as well as confidence in God’s protection and restoration. Response: “Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth tackles problems of an early, small Christian community — they are newborn infants living in a hostile atmosphere. This passage is from the greeting, but the apostle already gives the key to his teaching: unity in Christ is both the means and the goal of the Christian life (v 9). Salvation comes from God’s power, not from human wisdom (v 7), but this salvation is not a once-and-for-all gift; it is a growing, ever-expanding reality (v 8).

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What sort of signs of the Lord’s presence or of his coming should we be watchful for?

2. How is (or should be) the Church itself, your family, or yourself a sign of Christ’s coming?

Solemnity of Christ the King

November 26, 2017
THE SOLEMNITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING (Scripture Readings)

THE POOR AND NEEDY KING

Pope Pius XI established this feast in 1925 to counteract secularism and atheism in modern society. Although the concept of king as a symbol does not speak to our world with the impact it had hundreds of years ago, the reconciliation of all people under the lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of God remains the goal of this feast. The interdependence of Church and State in modern society, as well as their functional separation, needs to be continually recognized and maintained.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

This parable concludes the teaching on the Church in the light of the final fulfillment, which was begun in chapter 24. After exhorting his followers to vigilance, preparation, and attentive ministry during the period of uncertain delay before his second coming, Jesus now speaks of judgment in terms derived from the daily life of a shepherd — the separation of sheep and goats into their own pens after a day of grazing together.

Notice that the final condition for entry into the kingdom does not involve any special ethnic or even religious requirement. The Jewish concept of the final judgment was the triumph of the Jewish people over all other nations. The early Church was tempted to think in a similar way; membership in the Church, or mere profession of faith in Christ, as insuring a favorable judgment. According to Jesus’ words, however, the basic standard by which we will be judged is our recognition of one another as brothers and sisters in a genuine and active sense — what we do or fail to do for them springs from our attitude toward them, and ultimately, our attitude toward Christ.

The Christian who is called to profess faith explicitly in Christ must fulfill that faith by accepting even the most unacceptable (“my least brothers”) as he or she would accept Christ. But this passage assures us that even those who are incapable of believing in Christ — and there may be many causes of this incapacity — are nevertheless really receiving him to the extent that they receive those in need. Jesus showed great care for the “little ones” (Mt 10:42; 18:1-14). Whoever does the same is sharing the spirit of Christ; even if unawares, their action is truly of God. Christians have the gift of faith, then, not for their own glory, but to witness that God is present in the patterns of human relationships. Every genuine attempt at human solidarity already has the seed of divinity within it. The Christian task is to bring this seed to fruition.

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17

Ezekiel is writing after the return from exile in Babylon, and it is apparent that neither the people nor their leaders had learned their lesson. As they became prosperous again, they also became corrupt and less concerned with such “unprofitable” things as justice and mercy. Through the voice of the prophet, the Lord promises that he will lead his faithful himself. Jesus in the Gospel reading appropriates to himself this image of God as shepherd of his people.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6

Pray the words of this familiar psalm as though for the first time. Response: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28

The effect of the resurrection is the restoration of all things in the order that God intended. The doctrine of this passage is far more developed and complex than what we saw in 1 Thessalonians. Christ himself has already accomplished this restoration, but it is brought to completion only on the battleground of the human will of each person.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. “You are judged by what you do.” Is that a fair statement? What are some different ways to consider “judgment”?

2. Why bother being a Christian if you can get to heaven just by following your conscience? Is this question put in proper terms?

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 19, 2017
THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

TRUSTWORTHY SERVANT

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Delay is very significant in Matthew’s account of these parables about the kingdom. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, the second coming of Christ was expected just around the corner. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (70 C.E.), when Matthew was composed (85-100 C.E.), it was obvious that the time of the fulfillment was completely uncertain. Not only vigilance (24:45-51) and preparation (25:1-13) were needed, but also diligent and productive activity, as emphasized in this parable.

Investment of resources always involves a risk. Those who take the risk of putting what they have on the line, who see their gifts not as personal possessions but as opportunities for service, will be part of the kingdom’s fulfillment. Those who hoard what they have cut themselves off from the kingdom, and so will lose even what they try to save. Again, note that during the time of waiting, the good and the bad, the productive and the unproductive coexist in the Church, and are more or less indistinguishable from each other. Another theme repeated here is that mere membership in the Church (receiving the “silver pieces”) does not in itself ensure salvation.

First Reading: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

In late Jewish society, when this hymn of the prized wife was composed, women still had an inferior status, but not nearly so lowly as in most cultures of that time. The woman pictured here contrasts with the adulterous, troublesome wife that is often given as the image of unfaithful Israel (Hos 1-3; Jer 2-3; Ez 16 and 23). She is industrious in wifely duties, and these encompass every area of the life of both her and her husband. In her work she is seen not as the servant but as the true partner of her husband, and this responsible fulfillment is the source of her prestige. A fitting lesson for the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5

The ideal family life is seen as the result of fidelity to the Lord in this psalm which prays for blessings upon the faithful. Response: “Happy are those who fear the Lord.”

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6

Although Paul’s teaching in this letter was colored by the expectation of an imminent return of Christ, his message is no less valid, and is even more urgent today when we tend to grow complacent. Not knowing the “when” of the final moment gives greater importance to each passing moment as a unique opportunity of grace, never to be repeated. The ever-present challenge is to live and act in accord with what we are — NOW! Our own salvation and the salvation of the world depends on it.

The conclusion of the letter, an exhortation to rejoice in gratitude, is read on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What do you feel is God’s greatest gift to you? Why? Think about your answer. What does it tell you about you?

2. What do these readings say about how the Church (parish, diocese and/or universal Church) should use its resources?