Christians frequently search the Old Testament for passages which relate to the mission of Jesus and the stories of his birth. As straightforward as this effort might seem, it is fraught with complexities. We cannot examine Jesus’ presence in the Old Testament without addressing the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. Nor can we relate the writings of the two testaments without considering the relationship between the two communities which generated them: Jews and Christians. Therefore, before we begin to focus on particular passages from the scriptures, let us discuss the issues which face us.
Finding the Old in the New
As Christians we recognize two parts to our scriptures: the Old Testament and the New Testament. We hold both parts to be “inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). For Christians both parts are the Word of God, and the two parts are closely connected. The New Testament writers expressed the Good News of Jesus in light of the Old Testament. This was a given for them, because they were convinced that the same God who spoke to Abraham and Moses spoke to Jesus. The God of Israel was the Father of Jesus. The one, true God who saved Israel from slavery in Egypt was the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore, from their point of view, what was proclaimed in the New Testament was by necessity continuous with the witness of the Old Testament.
This continuity is evident in the practice of Jesus and the early church. Jesus in his ministry accepts and builds upon the Jewish scriptures. When Jesus is asked by a scribe to sum up his teaching, he quotes from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to express the great commandment of love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). Paul draws constantly upon the Old Testament, demonstrating that the same God who inspired the Jewish prophets was the one who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:1-4). The followers of Jesus asserted that the Jewish scriptures could not be ignored or pushed aside, for “the scripture cannot be annulled” (John 10:35). It was their conviction that one God was working in both testaments.
Thus from the very beginnings of our faith, the newness of Jesus was expressed in light of the Old Testament. A 2001 statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission expresses this connection in a forceful way: “Without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an incomprehensible book, a plant deprived of it roots and destined to dry up and wither” (The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, #84). From a Christian point of view, then, the unity of God’s plan requires that the New Testament constantly refer back to the Jewish scriptures. The Old must be found in the New.
Finding the New in the Old
It is simple enough to assert that the unity of God’s plan connects the message of the two testaments. It is much more complex to understand how Jesus who is the center of the New Testament can be found in the Old. The Old Testament makes no explicit mention of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, no section of the Old Testament was written by someone who believed in Jesus. This is in one sense obvious because the books of the Old Testament were all written before Jesus’ birth. Despite this clear historical fact, Christians have from the time of the apostles found ideas and images in passages of the Old Testament which they believed refer to Christ. They discovered in the Jewish scriptures allusions to the one whom they believed was Messiah and Son of God.
How valid is it that Christians search for allusions to Christ in texts which were written before his birth? The Christian practice can be understood when we appreciate the nature of texts and how to interpret them. The words of any text remain the same over the centuries. Yet interpretations of those words grow as succeeding generations read them. Texts invite such development, for important texts are always open to deeper meanings which make them relevant to the life of their readers. To hold any text only to the meaning which its original author intended is to freeze that text in the past, rendering it more of a historical artifact than a living document. New events in history enlarge the meaning of old texts.
This process of finding new meaning can be documented within the Old Testament itself. The Book of Deuteronomy reinterprets the meaning of the gift of manna which was described in Exodus 16:12-15. It sees in the gift of the physical manna a larger meaning, one referring to God’s Word which continually nourishes God’s people (Deut 8:2-3). The prophet Isaiah reinterprets God’s salvation in the Exodus, finding in it a foreshadowing of Israel’s release from exile (Isa 43:1-22). So too the New Testament writers, fully convinced of God’s new action in Christ, turned to the Old Testament and found references to that new action there. They discovered in the Jewish Scriptures a “fuller sense” which came to light for them in the revelation of Jesus. When a good ruler (probably Hezekiah) was promised to Ahaz in the Book of Isaiah, they discerned an announcement of Jesus’ birth (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). They discovered in the anguished cry of the psalmist the lament of Jesus on the cross (Ps 22:2; Mark 15:34). They reinterpreted the Old Testament in light of Jesus and his mission. The nature of texts and their own experience of the gospel allowed them to find the new in the old.
Dangers and Opportunities
Finding Christ in the Old Testament is a valid interpretive stance from a Christian point of view. Care must be taken, however, lest this stance be misunderstood or misused.
The new insights which Christians find within the Old Testament do not negate the original meaning of the texts. When Christians see in the announcement of Hezekiah’s birth a reference to Christ’s birth, they do not deny that God was involved in the birth of Hezekiah or that his birth was a part of God’s plan. As Christians hear in the cry of Psalm 22 the lament of Jesus, they do not negate the validity of that psalm to express the pain and faith of believers throughout the centuries. The “fuller sense” which refers to Christ does not erase the original sense which God intended. The Old Testament remains a valid source of divine revelation apart from the references to Christ which Christians find within it.
Therefore, when we call the first part of our Bible the “Old Testament,” the “old” does not suggest that these books are outdated or only of value in light of the new. The Old Testament is “old” in the sense of venerable and original. It contains the witness to the actions of the one God who has worked authentically both in the history of Israel and in the experience of Christians.
When we find Christ in passages of the Old Testament, we must also be careful not to use those texts as weapons in apologetic debates. As Christians we recognize a fuller sense in the Old Testament, but that recognition is only possible in light of the faith which we already profess. The oracles which we believe refer to Jesus cannot be used to judge others who do not see a reference to Jesus in them. Unfortunately the Christian reading of the Old Testament has been used in the past to denigrate Jews as obstinate and guilty for not believing “what their own scriptures profess.” This is an unreasonable and indefensible claim. Our ability to see Christ in the Old Testament does not result from some disinterested reading of the text. It only emerges when the text is read from the perspective of the gospel. It is only when we first believe in Christ, that we can discern the references to Christ which the text can convey.
As we begin drawing connections between the Messianic oracles of the Old Testament and the nativity stories of the New Testament, our stance should be one of thankfulness and respect. We should be thankful for the gift of our faith. This gift allows us to see a continuity in the action of God from creation to the end of time. It allows us to see Jesus as the Messiah, the one God has sent.
But even as we celebrate that continuity, we must be respectful of the Jewish people who produced our Old Testament. They remain God’s people, our elder brothers and sisters in covenant with God. Without their relationship to God, our faith in Jesus would have no foundation. Even though they continue to read their scriptures without seeing any reference to Jesus, we can respect their understanding and their belief. Our ability to see the fuller sense of the Old Testament is made possible only through the gift of our Christian faith. It is through God’s grace that we have come to see Jesus as God’s Messiah and therefore can perceive how the Old Testament, in a fuller sense, points to his glory.
“Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. “Christ” is a title for Jesus, one that describes who he is. Therefore, “Jesus Christ” is a shortened form for “Jesus, the Christ” or “Jesus who is the Christ.” “Christ” is a Greek term which translates the Hebrew māšîah from which we derive the word “Messiah.” Therefore, when we say, “Jesus Christ,” we are asserting that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah. If someone were to ask us to identify Jesus, we would probably say he is the Son of God or the Savior of the World. But the earliest believers in Jesus preferred the title “Messiah.” For them this word expressed what was most important about Jesus. That is why it became a part of his name.
So what does the term, “Messiah,” mean? A literal translation of the Hebrew is “the anointed.” Both kings and high priests were anointed with oil as they began their ministries. Both were seen as chosen by God to perform a particular role in the life of God’s people. After the Babylonian exile, Israel no longer had a king. Yet the royal psalms which referred to the king continued to be prayed by Jews. They saw in these psalms the anticipation of a future “anointed one” who would lead the people. By the first century of the common era, the term “Messiah” was understood to designate a leader who would act as God’s agent in the world and fulfill God’s promises to Israel. It is this role which the early church ascribed to Jesus.
Messiah: Clarifying Presumptions
If you ask a group of Christians to explain what they know about Jesus as the Messiah, two presumptions will invariably enter the discussion. The first is the conviction that all Jews of the time of Jesus were awaiting a Messiah. The second is that Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than the one which Jews were expecting, and that is why most Jews did not believe in him. It is usually supposed that the Jews were expecting a political and militaristic Messiah, whereas Jesus was an ethical and spiritual Messiah. Despite the widespread acceptance of these two presumptions, a careful examination of historical sources forces us to alter them significantly.
Jews at the time of Jesus did not have a unified vision of a Messiah. In fact when we examine Jewish literature, the term “Messiah” is not widespread. The term occurs only 38 times in the Hebrew Bible. In texts closer to the time of Jesus its use is scant and inconsistent. Some writings pictured the Messiah as a royal descendent of David, either as a warrior-king or righteous political ruler. Others envisioned a religious figure, a priestly leader who would provide an authoritative interpretation of God’s law. Still others expected a heavenly being who would fight the cosmic powers of evil. The writings of Qumran seem to describe two Messiahs, one priestly and one kingly. The Book of Sirach (36:1-17) expects that God alone would deliver Israel, without any need for a Messiah figure. Far from a universal or united stance, it seems that only some Jews of the first century expected a Messiah, and those who awaited one did not agree on the qualities which the Messiah would possess.
This diversity undercuts our first presumption. Not all Jews of the time of Jesus were awaiting a Messiah. It also undermines our second presumption. Because there was not one understanding of who the Messiah would be, Jesus’ role as Messiah could not be contrary to what all Jews were expecting. His ministry matched the expectations of some Jews and differed from the expectations of others. There was simply not one united view of the Messiah from which he could diverge.
The Messiah and the Kingdom
We cannot identify a consensus among Jews over the notion of Messiah. We can, however, document an agreement over a belief with which Messiah was invariably connected. Jews of the time of Jesus lived in the expectation of God’s ultimate restoration of Israel. All Jews understood God to be both Creator and Savior, the ultimate arbitrator of justice for the world. Jews sustained a conviction throughout their varied history that God would not abandon them nor would God ultimately relegate the world to the forces of evil. In the great prophets Israel envisioned “the day of the Lord,” when God would act to destroy war and usher a time of peace and plenty. God would not only be faithful to the promises made to Israel but extend justice to all of creation. In this new era evil would be destroyed and God’s reign would be complete. Jewish writings began to refer to God’s action as the establishment of God’s “kingdom.” The prophet Daniel describes a dominion which shall not pass away and a kingdom that shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:14). The Jewish prayer of the Kaddish concludes with the petition: “May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel.”
At the time of Jesus, the intensity of expectation concerning God’s kingdom was high. Apocalypses began to appear, envisioning the establishment of the kingdom in a wide variety of ways—sometimes with a Messiah figure and sometimes without. The preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus easily situate themselves into this Jewish matrix which expected God to act and to act soon.
Through the horrible persecutions of Antiochus IV and the revolt of the Maccabees (167-164 B.C.E.), Jews had come to the conviction that the heroic martyrs who died for their faith would be raised up on the last day. By the time of Jesus there was a growing consensus that the establishment of the kingdom would include the resurrection of the dead. Not all Jews accepted this development. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection because it was not explicitly mentioned in the Torah (Matt 22:23). The Pharisees, however, promoted the belief in the resurrection. Jesus agreed with them.
Thus in the time of Jesus there is every reason to believe that the majority of Jews anticipated God to act soon and establish the kingdom. God’s kingdom would involve the destruction of every evil and the resurrection of the dead. Jews pictured the kingdom in different ways, and some of those ways included an anointed agent of God, the Messiah. God’s kingdom could be envisioned without a Messiah, but a Messiah made no sense without God’s kingdom.
Jesus as the Messiah
It was the anticipation of God’s kingdom together with the resurrection of Jesus which led the early Church to claim Jesus as the Messiah. One of the clearest things we know about Jesus was that his ministry was to announce the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus preached the kingdom. His parables described it. His miracles pointed to it. He prayed, “Thy kingdom come!” After his horrific death, his disciples came to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. But what did that resurrection mean? Why was it Good News?
Kingdom provides the answer. To a Jew of the first century resurrection was invariably linked to God’s kingdom. Therefore, when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was logical for his followers to conclude that the kingdom had begun. St. Paul argues that the resurrection of Jesus will lead to our own resurrection and the full establishment of the kingdom (1Cor 15:20-28). Jesus’ resurrection, when united to the Jewish understanding of God’s kingdom, led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus was God’s agent, the Messiah. There was nothing in Jewish expectation to suggest that the Messiah would suffer and die, nor that God would raise up one man before the rest of humanity. These traits of Jesus death and resurrection were unique to him. But Jews consistently connected resurrection and the kingdom, and that connection overrode what was unexpected and gave the apostles a clear message and an obvious Messiah.
Far from the presumption that Jews had one clear view of the Messiah and Jesus did not fit it, the diversity of Jewish expectation allowed the early church to select Messianic traits from the tradition which conformed to Jesus and to add new aspects which they believed had just been revealed. To their surprise God had chosen to raise up a single person before the rest of the just who had died. Moreover, this person had suffered a criminal’s death. But through his resurrection it was clear that he was God’s Chosen One, the Messiah, through whom God would destroy all evil and inaugurate a new creation. That became the Gospel. That remains the Good News. God is fulfilling the ancient promises. God is establishing the kingdom. God is doing this through Jesus. That is why we call him the Christ.
Luke inserts throughout his account of Jesus’ birth a series of hymns or canticles of praise. Yet they are praise of a certain kind. They extol God for the works of power which have been exercised on behalf of the poor. These hymns pick up the biblical theme of God’s regard for the Anawim. The word literally means “the poor ones.” It may have originally meant the physically poor, but in time it came to refer to anyone in society who had to depend on another for life: the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the widows, the orphan. In biblical faith, God is the defender of the Anawim. Anyone who ignores or neglects their need is answerable to the God who protects them. Luke was probably attracted to these canticles of the Anawim because he regularly portrays Jesus as one who cares for the marginalized.
The most famous of these hymns of praise is Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Let us examine this canticle not with a scholarly eye but with an open heart, connecting Mary’s praise with our own experiences of God. The canticle divides easily into an introduction (verses 46-47), a body of two strophes (verses 48-50 and 51-53), and a conclusion (verses 54-55).
Introduction: The Centrality of Joy
Like all the canticles of Luke’s infancy narrative, the Magnificat is a hymn of praise. But Mary’s song is unique in the emphasis it places on joy. As Mary magnifies the Lord, her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Praise leads to happiness. Praise is more than a duty. It is a gift to the believer. When we meet our obligation of praise, we are blessed with delight and gladness.
The Old Testament knows and proclaims this important insight. The Magnificat draws many of its expressions from the prayer of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel. Hannah was Samuel’s mother. When Samuel was born, she sang a song of praise to God. Like Mary, Hannah began her praise with joy: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exulted in my God. . . . I rejoice in my victory” (1 Sam 2:1-2). The psalmist also knows the reality of joy: “Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance” (Ps 35:9). The prophet Habakkuk echoes similar words: “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:18). Mary’s hymn is a continuation of the truth celebrated in Israel. Happiness flows from our praise of God.
The Magnifcat, then, begins by calling us to appreciate a fundamental truth of believing. Discipleship is not primarily duty and obligation. The gospel is not founded upon our moral perfection. God’s goodness is the ground of all things. Extolling that goodness flows into gladness. If we are dour and begrudging believers, something is wrong. When we perceive the goodness of the God whom we adore, the result of such a revelation is happiness and joy.
First Strophe: Exploring the Heart of the Believer
The first strophe of the body of the Magnificat leads us to examine what is required of a person of faith. Verse 48 describes two necessary attitudes; verses 49-50 illustrate what these attitudes create in the world.
Mary asserts that she is both lowly and blessed. Both are necessary attitudes for the disciple. Echoing again the words of Hannah (1 Sam 1:11), Mary professes that God has bestowed favor “on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary situates herself among the Anawim. She is totally dependent upon God’s power. Without God’s intervention she could not have been called to her role in salvation; she could not be bearing the life within her womb. But her lowliness is not to be equated with worthlessness. Her dependence does not lead to helplessness. It flows into a surprising pride: “all generations will call me blessed.” Mary’s role and value will be recognized not only by those around her but by people in every time and place.
The Magnificat invites every person of faith to live in the tension between lowliness and blessedness. We must always own our dependence on God’s power. All our abilities, resources, and successes are only possible because of God’s presence and grace. Yet lowly as we are, our status is a high one. Because of God’s gifts to us, we are worthy and capable. We have been blessed and, like Mary, we can boast in the many ways God has made us great.
Verses 49-50 illustrate what happens when a believer lives in the tension between lowliness and blessedness. The result is fear. Fear in the biblical sense is not horror or panic. It is to live in the awe of God’s presence, to know both God’s greatness and love. Therefore, “those who fear him” are those who recognize how our transcendent God deigns to care for us. When this healthy attitude of fear is embraced, there is an impact on our world. Mary proclaims that God has done “great things” for her. Because of her reverent fear, the world has been changed. God’s final act of salvation has begun.
We, like Mary, are called to recognize that our personal attitudes of faith are not to remain interior dispositions. With proper fear of God we are called to work for God’s kingdom. We should do so with confidence, because God has big plans for us and for our world. Our role is to contribute to a mission which is not a small step but a great stride forward, not a minor adjustment but a new creation.
Second Strophe: Toppling the Powerful
The second strophe of the Magnificat contrasts the attitude of the true disciple with the powerful (verses 51-53). The hymn identifies the powerful as the proud and the rich. Operating from the mindset of the Awawim, the powerful are those who trust in their own strength not in God. Their pride is the illusion that they can act independently from God’s greatness and accomplish their own will without regard for their Creator. The powerful, then, are those who presume they are only accountable to their own designs and greed. They feel free to exploit whatever resources are in their grasp, for they imagine that the world and those who are in it are so many objects for them to manipulate.
God’s purpose is to reverse the plans of the powerful. Because God is the God of the Anawim, God will scatter the designs of those who depend upon their own strength and exalt those who trust in divine help. The Magnificat draws again from Hannah’s song: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength” (1 Sam 2:4). Sirach also knows of this reversal: “The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their place” (Sir 10:14). Mary understands that the way of the powerful is not to be feared. The proud will be scattered. The powerful will be brought down. The rich will be sent empty away.
As we pray with Mary, the fate of the powerful gives us hope. Even though the world seems firmly in the hand of those who exploit it for their own ends, the believer trusts in God. Political rulers, captains of industry, tyrants of wealth and influence seem to call all the shots. But the lowly understand God’s power. Ultimately those who do not acknowledge God’s reign will fail. Their fall is not a cause for partisan spite but a reason for humble faith. God is establishing the kingdom. Those who oppose it do so at their own peril.
Conclusion: Standing With Our Ancestors
How can we dare to believe that God will scatter the powerful? How can we be so bold as to assert that those who manipulate the world will not succeed? The conclusion of the Magnificat presents a perspective which supports such faith (verses 54-55). It invites us to take the long view, to realize that God’s purposes become clear when we trace their power over the generations. God’s promise of help has not only been made to us but “to Abraham and to his descendents forever.” We stand in a long procession of the lowly who fear God. We realize that in the short term the powerful may seem invincible. Over the span of a month or a lifetime, it may be difficult to see the hungry receiving good things. But when we trace the unfolding of God’s plan, oppressors lose their grip, tyrants are undone, and the wasteful rich reap only emptiness. Over time the truth emerges. The flow of history reveals God’s victory.
As we pray with Mary, we claim both our lowliness and blessedness. We admit the great things which God will do through us, and we watch for the powerful to be overthrown. We watch not in a glimpse but through the generations. From that vantage point God’s victory is perceived. Such a revelation necessarily leads us back to where the Magnificat begins—to praise and joy.
Genesis 18:1-15—Faith Is Laughing with Sarah
We begin with laughter. It is the laughter of Sarah, and her laughter is ambivalent at best. Is she laughing in delight over what she has just heard or in disbelief at its absurdity? There is truth in both alternatives. Abraham and Sarah are advanced in age. Although her ability to bear children had ceased long ago, Sarah has just been promised a son (verse 10). What could be more impossible? The response to such a promise is laughter, laughter at the ridiculous. Yet the promise which was given touches Sarah’s deepest desire. Her life has been marked by barrenness. Despite continual efforts and strategies she has been unable to provide Abraham with a child. Now these strange messengers who are visiting Abraham assure her that her barrenness will end. If there is any chance that their words are true, if there is any possibility that she can hold the fruit of her womb in her own arms, that would be reason for laughter, indeed.
Every believer who faces God’s promises must embrace the laughter of Sarah. God assures us that there will be happiness, love, and life. These pledges are both too good to be true and too good not to be true. Their glory and perfection may lead us to doubt whether they will ever be ours. But their truth is so a part of our own soul that we can never let them go. In the end we are left only with faith, a faith that God’s love and power is beyond our imagining and that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.
Reflection: What in my life do I most desire to happen? Dare I believe that God will grant it to me?
Prayer: Loving God, your goodness is beyond my understanding. Make me thankful for what I have received, and give me hope in the blessings to come.
Numbers 24:1-19—Promises Emerge in Unlikely Places
The New Testament has associated the star which is described in this passage (verse 17) with the star which led the Magi to Bethlehem (Matt 2:2). Through this connection Jesus is seen to fulfill the promise of the mighty ruler who will destroy the enemies of Israel (verse 19). As we appreciate the power of this promise, we should not ignore its unusual circumstances.
The promise is uttered by Balaam, a diviner who is speaking for pay. He has been hired by Balak, king of Moab. Balak is frightened of the power of Israel. Therefore, he employs Balaam to curse Israel lest his kingdom be attacked. But when Balaam opens his mouth to curse Israel, a blessing comes out instead (verses 3-9). This angers Balak and he dismisses Balaam without any remuneration (verses 10-11). So Balaam departs, uttering a final oracle concerning a great leader who is yet to come. What began as a curse has become a blessing. What was intended to destroy Israel has instead insured a great future.
As we look to the future in our own lives, it is important to remember Balaam’s peculiar oracle. Hope is not limited to positive circumstances. A promise can emerge in darkness and pain. Even as we experience trouble in our families, issues with our health, or grief over a loved one, we must always remain open to a good word from the Lord. In an unexpected moment between suffering and despair, God can offer the promise of a better future. When all is emptiness and curses around us, it is still possible to catch a glimpse of the blessings which are to come.
Reflection: When have I experienced hope in a time of darkness? Where can I look for hope today?
Prayer: Faithful God, your love is not limited to positive circumstances. Keep me open to your promises in every time and place.
Isaiah 60:1-7—God’s Promise Is for Everyone
Matthew tells us that the Magi offered gifts of gold and frankincense to the Christ Child (Matt 2:11). Matthew drew the description of those gifts from this passage in Isaiah (verse 6). Christians see in these verses an anticipation of the reign of God which we believe Jesus has inaugurated. What is noteworthy about Isaiah’s vision is its scope. The prophet envisions a future when all nations will stream to Israel (verse 3). The abundance of the earth and sea will be gathered together for God’s glory (verse 5). Although this passage certainly exults the status of Israel, her future is not for self-glorification. The gifts of all people will be acceptable on God’s altar (verse 7). All humanity will be revealed as children of God. The universal scope of Isaiah’s vision is embraced by the gospel. Christians are sent to spread the good news to all the nations of the earth (Matt 28:19).
Isaiah reminds us that God’s salvation is all-embracing. The promises have not been given only for us or only for a few. God who is Savior is also Creator. Therefore, God’s love extends to all that is. We who await the fulfillment of God’s promises are called to adopt a genuine inclusiveness. Any boundary or barrier which separates humanity into categories of distain or neglect works against God’s purpose for the world. Every act of prejudice or violence which strikes against the dignity of any person diminishes the glory which God intends. The vision promises God’s kingdom. But it is a kingdom we will enter together.
Reflection: Have I ever allowed prejudices and stereotypes to influence my treatment of others?
Prayer: Lord God, I am most comfortable with those who are like me. Allow me to recognize that all people are your children.
Psalm 72—Jesus Is a King for the Poor
Psalm 72 is a prayer for the Israelite king. Christians have traditionally connected the psalm to Jesus. A reference to his birth is found in verse 10. There it is said that kings of foreign nations will bring gifts. Christians have associated this verse with the Magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child (Matt 2:11). The gospel does not describe the Magi as kings. But Christians came to claim their royal status by reading the story of Jesus in light of this psalm.
An important truth is discovered when we focus not on those who bring the gifts but on the one who receives them. The king who accepts gifts from the nations is the one who judges the poor with justice (verse 2), has pity on the weak and needy (verse 13), and redeems the helpless from oppression and violence (verse 14). The king protects the weakest in society because he is God’s chosen one, and God cares for the poor. When the monarchy ended in Israel, Jews continued to pray this psalm in light of an ideal king who was to come. The gospels assert with confidence that Jesus is that ideal figure. He ministers to the poor, to widows, sinners, and tax collectors. But his care for the marginal in society was not an innovation. As a good Jew, Jesus understood that God was the protector of the poor. Jesus’ ministry testified to the saving God of Israel.
Jesus is our king. His mission has become ours. We cannot claim him as our Messiah without continuing his work. We cannot name his as Christ without caring for the least among us.
Reflection: What people are in need in my home or at my job? How can I serve them?
Prayer: God of the poor, your power and might are directed to those who need it the most. Make me sensitive to those without power or voice.
1 Samuel 1:1-19—We Pray For Our Soul’s Desire
The Gospel of Luke draws heavily upon the story of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel to describe the experience of Mary. Hannah’s story begins in barrenness (verse 2). She stands with Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), and Rachel (Gen 29:31) as women who could not conceive. Hannah’s barrenness expresses a need which only God can fill. Despite the touching love of her husband (verses 5, 8), Hannah’s soul cannot be healed. Without a child she feels that she is incomplete. Only God can provide what she lacks. Therefore, in her barrenness she dares to pray for what is so necessary but so unlikely (verse 11). God remembers Hannah and answers her prayer (verse 19). God will continue to work in the barrenness of Elizabeth (Luke 1:36) and in the birth of Jesus who is conceived without a human father (Luke 1:34-35).
For God’s promises to be fulfilled, we must dare to place our deepest needs before the Lord. We must trust enough to ask for what we most desire. Asking for small or marginal blessings does not involve much risk. If they are granted, we are pleased; if they are not granted, we can get along. But to ask for our greatest yearning takes courage. If that prayer is not answered, how can we continue, how can we still believe? As people of faith we are called to pray with Hannah, to lay our hearts openly before the Lord, knowing that God does not only do what is easy but also what is impossible. Our God has the power to grant our soul’s desire. Our God gives children to the barren and life to the dead.
Reflection: Am I willing to place my deepest desires before God in prayer?
Prayer: Faithful God, you know what I most need. Give me courage to ask not simply for what is likely but for those things on which my life depends.
1 Samuel 1:20 to 2:11—Praise Strengthens Our Faith
After Hannah’s prayer was granted, she gave birth to her son and dedicated him to the service of the Lord (1 Sam 1: 20, 28). But Hannah understood that she had one more responsibility. It was right for her to claim her joy in praise of God. Hannah names God as her rock (1 Sam 2:2). God’s power raises up the poor and is the foundation of the earth (2:8). Hannah’s canticle is used by Luke to shape the prayer of Mary as she too gives praise to God (Luke 1:46-55). The prayers of both Hannah and Mary remind us that we are called not only to petition God in our need but also to praise God in our joy.
Praise of God is not for God’s benefit. God is complete and does not depend upon any acknowledgement from us. We praise God because it is our duty. But such praise will deepen our faith. Personal truths become real only when they are spoken. It is when we tell people, “Thank you,” that we experience the power of their generosity. It is when we say, “I love you,” that we realize fully the depth of love. When God has blessed us and answered our prayer, it is important to claim that gift in praise. By telling our self and others what God has done, we claim our blessedness and strengthen our faith. Then in future days, if we must face barrenness again, it will be easier to believe. We will trust God again, not only because God saved us before, but because we were wise enough to express our blessings in praise.
Reflection: What great gifts has God given me? Have I praised God for what I have received?
Prayer: God of Life, I praise you for the blessing of family, friends, health, and happiness. Allow my praise to strengthen my trust in you.
2 Samuel 7:8-17—Our Confidence Is from God’s Love
God’s relationship with humanity has been a fragile one. Creation was marred by sin. Unity was shattered by a babble of languages. The covenant was broken by idolatry. The Promised Land was lost through exile and foreign domination. Will there ever come a time when the relationship is secure, when the will of God is perfectly accomplished? Israel dreamed of such a time and envisioned it in many ways. A touchstone for that dream is expressed in God’s promise to David. The prophet Nathan tells David that his descendent would rule over a kingdom which would last forever (verse 13, 16). The permanence of this kingdom would not depend upon human faithfulness (verse 14). The kingdom of David would last because God chose to make it last. It would be kingdom founded on God’s love (verse 15). This passage is in view, when Gabriel tells Mary that her son will inherit the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:32-33). In Jesus the final victory of God’s love over human infidelities has begun.
We believe that God’s kingdom will come. The resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated the establishment of God’s great plan for the world. Because of this Good News, we should live in confidence. Even when it seems that our families will never be reconciled, the poor will never be fed, the unborn will never be protected, or the earth will never be respected, we continue to live in hope. Christ’s kingdom is not founded on our faithfulness or goodness. It rests on God’s faithful love. And the love of God lasts forever.
Reflection: When I face discouragement, do I remember the promise of God’s fidelity?
Prayer: Loving God, it is so easy to be deflated by all that is wrong in the world. Help me to see the goodness around me and believe in your lasting faithfulness.
Isaiah 7:1-16—God Promises Good Government
Ahaz was a weak and vacillating king. He based his policies on expediency and political triangulation rather than on his heritage which called him to trust in God. In his manipulation he even sacrificed his son to a foreign god to attain a strategic advantage (2 Kgs 16:3). In today’s passage Ahaz is confronted by the prophet Isaiah who challenges him to trust in God’s power. Ahaz refuses to listen. In frustration the prophet points to a better future. A young woman is with child and her son will rule with the integrity which Ahaz lacks (verse 14). It is impossible to determine which particular mother and child Isaiah had in mind, but the name Immanuel indicates that he will rule in accordance with God’s will. Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to Isaiah’s promise and calls Jesus Immanuel (Matt 1:23).
This passage is perhaps the best known of all the Messianic oracles. But even as we claim its fulfillment in Jesus, we must not ignore its original setting. God’s kingdom is inextricably connected to this world and those who govern it. Immanuel was first named in an effort to confront a corrupt politician. We must not ignore the political realities of our own time. Rewarding politicians of integrity and unseating those who abuse their office is a Christian responsibility. We demonstrate our faith when we exercise our duty to vote and work to bring principles of justice into our civic life. Christians know that God’s reign will include heavenly happiness. But we who follow Immanuel also know that we must work to foster good government in our world.
Reflection: How well do I exercise my Christian role as a good citizen?
Prayer: Jesus, Immanuel, I thank you for giving me a country in which my voice counts. Lead me to use it to do your will.
Isaiah 9:1-7—War Is Not the Future
War has been so much a part of human history that it is difficult to imagine a world at peace. Violence has so characterized human interaction that its presence is accepted as inevitable. The Jewish tradition dares to imagine a time when war will end and when peace will be endless (verse 7). This oracle was probably spoken by Isaiah to provide the qualities of Immanuel who was named in yesterday’s passage. It describes a future leader who will perfectly actualize God’s promises. Matthew applies Isaiah’s vision to Jesus, claiming that his light shines on those who sit in darkness (Matt 4:15-16).
The darkness in question is the violence of the world. Widespread and durable, it influences not only the dealings of countries but neighborhoods and families as well. Might makes right. Force will accomplish what is necessary. Isaiah presents an alternate vision: a world at peace, a world based not on brute power but on justice and righteousness (verse 7). It is easy to dismiss such a vision as a simplistic dream. Our faith tradition demands that we accept it as God’s intention. Followers of Jesus dare to imagine a world where conflicts can be resolved through dialogue and bloodshed can be forestalled by justice. Christians understand that we are called to contribute to this vision: to eliminate violent choices from our own lives, to discourage aggression wherever we find it, and to persuade others that hostility is a failure not a solution. Some may say we are lost in illusion. But we claim to be following the Prince of Peace (verse 6).
Reflection: How can I oppose the inclination to violence which may be present in my relationships?
Prayer: Prince of Peace, your reign runs contrary to the patterns of our world. Help me to reject the use of force and employ the power of love.
Isaiah 11:1-9—God’s Peace Affects All Creation
This oracle describes a ruler who will come from the house of Jesse and possess the Spirit of the Lord (verse 1-2). He will rule with righteousness (verses 4-5). The result of his reign will be peace, but it will be a peace more universal than any previously imagined. Not only will it affect humans but even the animals of the earth. The wolf will not attack the lamb. The leopard will not hurt the kid. The calf and the lion, the cow and the bear will live in peace. The snake will not bite a child at play (verses 6-8). The knowledge of the Lord and the peaceful character of our God will affect all the earth.
It is possible to assume that the animal images in this passage are only a metaphoric way to describe human relations. But the oracle should not be so constricted. After all, the vision seeks to describe a future according to God’s intentions not our expectations. How far, then, do we imagine that God’s care extends? Jesus applies it to the smallest sparrow (Matt 10:29). Paul insists that it involves all of creation (Rom 8:19-22). Those who wish to describe God’s kingdom should not think narrowly. God’s love is large enough to embrace all that is. Therefore, we would be wise to treat our world with respect. Even as we validly use animals and natural resources for our sustenance, we cannot deny that they flow from God’s creative love and will share in God’s ultimate kingdom. Rather than treating our world as fodder for consumption, we might better side with St. Francis and see all creatures as our brothers and sisters.
Reflection: Does my treatment of the world’s resources acknowledge that creation is God’s handiwork?
Prayer: Creator God, you have made all things. Allow me to remember that your world is not disposable but will share in your glory.
Isaiah 40:1-11—We Have a Role in Establishing the Kingdom
This oracle from Isaiah announces to the exiles in Babylon that their “penalty is paid” and that they will soon return to their own land (verse 2). Isaiah uses imagery drawn from the Babylonian religion. The Babylonians celebrated an eleven-day New Year festival during which the statue of their god, Marduk, was carried along a “Sacred Way” to a small temple outside the city. Through this journey the Babylonians believed that their god fixed the destiny of the people, protecting them from evil and assuring the abundance of the land. When the voice in this oracle cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (verse 3), Isaiah’s original hearers would remember the Babylonian festival in which the whole city praised Marduk on his way. Just as Marduk cared for Babylon, God would care for Israel. The New Testament sees John the Baptist as the voice which calls believers to prepare the way for Jesus (Mark 1:2-3).
The kingdom is fundamentally the work of God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection God has initiated the end of evil and a new creation. But the reign of God is not yet complete. We are called to participate in building the kingdom through our actions of generosity and service. As we oppose what is evil and promote what is good, we hasten the final coming of the Lord. We profess Christ as our “way” each time we live in love and justice. As Christians we live in response to the invitation of Isaiah and the Baptist. We continue to prepare the way of the Lord.
Reflection: What actions of mine block or hinder the way of God?
Prayer: Jesus, you are the Life and the Way. Help me commit myself to make your coming swift and unimpeded.
Isaiah 42:1-9—The Kingdom Comes with Gentle Patience
In this oracle Isaiah describes the servant of Yahweh. The New Testament has drawn heavily from Isaiah’s words, presenting Jesus as the “chosen one in whom God delights” (verse 1; Mark 1:11). The servant in this oracle is both patient and gentle. He will not use force or violence to accomplish God’s purposes. A bruised reed will not be discarded; a smoldering wick will not be extinguished (verse 3). He will gently preserve and nurture what is struggling and weak. His mission will be to support what seems exhausted and include it in the reign of God.
Since Jesus, our Messiah, identifies with the servant in this oracle, we who follow Christ are called to imitate his gentle ministry. We are not to reject those whose gifts are limited or avoid those who are unpopular. We must not discount those who struggle or cut off those who fail. With patience we are invited to understand the weakness of others and to forgive those who have hurt us. In our families, our role is to build up the members who doubt their value. In our job, our place is to spend time with those who feel inadequate. In our society, our influence should side with the marginal and forgotten. When others advise us to dismiss the needy or ignore those who suffer, we must remember the message of Isaiah’s vision. The Kingdom of God does not emerge in a dramatic show of power, but in the gentle patience of the servant in whom God delights.
Reflection: Who in my life is fragile? How can I treat them with gentleness and patience?
Prayer: Gracious God, your presence is in all people. Allow me to use my gifts to build up others rather than tear them down.
Isaiah 52:1-10—We Must Speak in Our Actions
Isaiah announces that the power of God will save Israel from exile. God will break the bonds which hold Israel captive (verse 2). When God’s reign is complete, there will be peace and salvation for God’s people. How beautiful it is to hear this salvation proclaimed (verse 7). How wonderful to receive the good news by which God comforts the people (verse 9). Although Isaiah connects the good news with the release from exile, New Testament writers understand the good news to refer to Jesus’ work of salvation. Paul draws upon this passage to describe the mission of the apostles who go out to spread the news of Christ’s resurrection (Rom 10:15).
We usually associate the proclamation of the Good News with human words. But it is intriguing that this passage from Isaiah points in another direction: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger” (verse 7). Without in any way denying that a messenger will speak, the focus upon the messenger’s feet reminds us that the gospel is not spread by words alone. We can be agents of God’s love when we listen to a friend who is struggling, contribute to efforts which support the poor, or simply spend time with those who have lost a family member in death. Actions of love and service convey the reality of the gospel. Words without action lose their force and power. We would do well to follow the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, “Proclaim the gospel always, and when necessary use words.”
Reflection: What simple action can I perform to show God’s love in my home or workplace?
Prayer: Loving God, you created all things by the power of your word. Help me to see my words have greater power when I act with love.
Jeremiah 31:7-17—Tears Will Lead to Joy
In today’s passage Jeremiah addresses the sorrow of the people over the destruction of the northern kingdom and the exile of the southern kingdom in Babylon. Rachel is the image of the northern kingdom (verse 15). Her sorrow is unrelenting. Her country has been shattered by the power of the Assyrians. She weeps for her children because they are no more. Yet Jeremiah insists that the sorrow of Rachel, however deep, will not be the end of her story. In an act of great power, God will lead back the exiles in a new exodus (verses 8-9) and those remaining from the northern kingdom will come back to their own land (verse 17). This oracle describes God as one who acknowledges human pain and turns sorrow into joy. Matthew associates the tears of Rachel with the cries of the parents who lament the slaughter of their children by Herod (Matt 2:18). In so doing Matthew implies that the loss and pain of humanity will be transformed into joy by the victory of Christ.
The pattern revealed in Jeremiah should be embraced by all believers. Neither Jeremiah nor Matthew announces a world without pain. Our present experience will involve suffering, disappointment, and loss. Being in relationship with God does not protect us from these evils. But God will not forget us. Human pain is not the final word. God led Israel from exile back into the Promised Land. God guides us now in Christ towards the promised kingdom. God’s plan is to lead us from suffering to life, from evil to joy, from sorrow into God’s loving embrace.
Reflection: When have I realized that God has used a sorrow in my life to heal and bless me?
Prayer: Eternal God, your ways are faithful and true. Help me to see my struggles as doorways which lead to life.
Hosea 11:1-12—God’s Love is Greater than Our Sin
Few passages in the bible present the struggle between divine and human faithfulness more dramatically than this oracle from Hosea. Here God deals with the unfaithfulness of Israel. God is not presented in distant or judgmental terms but as a distraught parent lamenting the waywardness of his child. God’s love for Israel could not be expressed more tenderly. God taught Israel to walk and held her in his arms (verse 3). God fed her and lifted her close as a mother holds a child to her cheek (verse 4). But Israel did not respond to God’s love. She kept sacrificing to other gods (verse 2) and did not know that it was God who healed her (verse 3). Israel deserves harsh judgment for her sin, but God cannot bear to execute it. God’s heart recoils against punishment and warms with compassion (verse 8). When Matthew cites this oracle in his infancy narrative, he indicates that the love of God which forgave Israel for her faithlessness is now active in the saving power of Jesus (Matt 2:15).
We are sometimes tempted to picture our relationship to God in mutual terms. But there is no parity between God and us. God’s goodness is greater than any human accomplishment. Any relationship with God must reflect God’s ultimate superiority. The human role is limited to responding to a love which is beyond our understanding. This is Good News. If we were equal partners with God, our sin would end the relationship. But since God is in complete control, God’s compassion can overcome our weakness. God’s love is greater than our sin.
Reflection: In what circumstances have I experienced God’s unconditional love for me?
Prayer: Compassionate God, help me see that your goodness is greater than my noblest deeds and your mercy more powerful than my most serious sins.
Micah 5:1-4—Justice Leads to Peace
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. Two great themes characterize the book which bears his name: justice and peace. The justice is missing from Micah’s world; the peace is to come. Micah speaks out against those who exploit the poor (Mic 2:1-2) and leaders who operate on bribery and influence (Mic 3:10-11). God is opposed to all these injustices and will punish Israel for her unfaithfulness. But Micah looks forward to a future in which God’s justice will reign, and the chief trait of that future will be peace. Micah declares that on that day nations “will beat their swords into plowshares” and no longer train for war (Mic 4:3). Micah looks forward to a just ruler who will come from Bethlehem (verse 1). He will shepherd the flock of Israel in the strength of the Lord and he will bring peace (verses 4-5). Matthew associates this great ruler with Jesus. The Magi are led by this passage from Micah to look for the Christ Child in Bethlehem (Matt 2:6).
Micah understands that justice and peace are related. Without justice, violence and war will easily erupt. Where true justice flourishes, dreams for lasting peace can be realized. Justice is the foundation of peace. Matthew reflects this truth when he situates the Prince of Peace within Herod’s corrupt efforts to destroy him (Matt 2:16). Believers who hear the biblical message of both testaments must not only understand the relationship between justice and peace but act upon it. God calls us to oppose injustice and promote right relationships between people and nations. Otherwise the peace we desire will remain only a dream.
Reflection: What concrete step can I take to promote what is just in my own circumstances?
Prayer: God of peace, I long for the tranquility of your creation. Motivate me to hasten your promise by opposing what is wrong and defending the poor and the weak.
Zechariah 9:9-10—We Are to Follow Our Peaceful Messiah
The first eight chapters of the Book of Zechariah contain appeals to rebuild the temple after Israel’s return from exile. The last six chapters are a mixed collection of oracles coming from circumstances which are difficult to describe or date. The small, two-verse oracle which we read today describes a coming ruler who will be humble and a bearer of peace. Its tranquility is heightened by its position in the text, surrounded by oracles in which God is presented as a warrior. This small oracle exercised an influence upon Jews as they anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom. Its description of a peaceful Messiah was utilized by Matthew (21:4-5) and John (12:14-15) to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ ministry mirrored the humility and peace which was described by Zechariah. His role as a peaceful Messiah, therefore, was not unexpected in the traditions of Israel. Jesus’ ministry demonstrated continuity with one of the messianic images envisioned by Jews of the first century.
For Christians the diversity of Jewish messianic expectations has been resolved by the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is clear to us that his mission is one of non-violence and humble service. Therefore, we who follow him must imitate his characteristics. Christians cannot attempt to establish his kingdom by force or intimidation. Violent means cannot be adopted as tools to attain good purposes. All too often we are tempted to intimidate others to become the people we believe they should be. The example of Jesus pulls in another direction. Jesus did not espouse force or coercive power. Neither should we who proclaim him as our Messiah.
Reflection: When am I tempted to reach a good end by threats or anger?
Prayer: Jesus, my Messiah, through your suffering and death you gave me an example of non-violence. Help me to be a bearer of peace.
Malachi 2:17 to 3:5—Justice Is Foundational to the Gospel
The author of the Book of Malachi was an anonymous prophet active in the period after the exile. Because of his strong criticism of the priests and rulers of the people, he concealed his identity by making a proper name out of the Hebrew expression for “my messenger” (Malachi). The prophet was keenly aware of the injustices around him. The worker was defrauded of his wages; widows and orphans were denied their rights; the stranger was turned away without hospitality (chapter 3, verse 5). The people of Malachi’s time were wondering “Where is the God of justice?” (chapter 2, verse 17). Malachi provided an answer. God will send a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. God will suddenly come to the temple and will purify the people from all their iniquities, so that they might become an offering to God in righteousness (chapter 3,verses 1 to 3). The gospels saw in this messenger announced by Malachi an anticipation of John the Baptist who prepared the way for Christ (Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2).
As in so many other oracles used by the evangelists, this passage associates Jesus’ ministry with God’s justice in our world. The gospel writers continually surround Jesus with the poor and marginalized. He announces the kingdom to sinners and tax collectors. Paul describes the victory of Christ in terms of justice. Christ aim is to destroy all the powers of evil and establish a kingdom in which God is all in all (1 Cor 15:24-28). The New Testament provides its own answer to Malachi’s question. The justice of God is to be found in the work of Christ.
Reflection: In what areas of our world do I see the need for God’s justice?
Prayer: Faithful God, I am well aware of how much in our world is not right. You know what things are wrong; help me to work against them.
Luke 1:67-79—The Promises to Israel Continue
If one were to seek an example of how the New Testament is shaped by the traditions of the Old Testament, it would be difficult to find a passage better suited than Zechariah’s Benedictus. Even though it is prayed by the father of John the Baptist upon the birth of his son, it mainly concerns the person and ministry of Jesus. And this canticle presents Jesus in light of his Jewish faith. The God who is addressed is the God of Israel (verse 68). God’s Savior comes from the house of David and has been envisioned by the Hebrew prophets (verses 69-70). God’s mercy has been promised to our Jewish ancestors, based upon God’s covenant with them and grounded in the oath made to Abraham (verses 72-73). Although Zechariah is elated by the newness of Christ, the Benedictus is full of continuity between Jesus and his Jewish heritage. In both belief and expression, it is a thoroughly Jewish prayer.
Zechariah’s canticle is a clear reminder of Christian dependence on God’s covenant with Israel. Although Judaism and Christianity stand today as two distinct religions, they remain connected to each other. John Paul II has described this connection as two faith communities “linked together at the very level of their identity.” Even as Christians proclaim the newness of the gospel, we must remain conscious of our indebtedness to Israel’s faith. The Jews remain God’s people. Every slander against them or offense toward them is a transgression against the God we both adore. It is wrong for Christians to believe that Christianity supercedes Judaism. As Paul states with divine authority, the gifts and calling of the Jewish people are irrevocable (Rom 11:29).
Reflection: Have I ever spoken or acted in disrespect towards God’s chosen people, the Jews?
Prayer: Jesus, my Savior, you were born and believed in God as a Jew. Help me to recognize that my faith flows from the traditions of my Jewish brothers and sisters.
Luke 2:25-32—Sometimes God’s Timing Is on Our Side
Like Zechariah’s Benedictus, Simeon’s canticle stresses the continuity between Jesus and the Jewish promises. Jesus will not only be a light to the Gentiles but the glory of Israel (verse 32). The beauty of the oracle is enhanced as we consider the situation of Simeon. We can presume that Simeon had been longing for years to witness the fulfillment of the promises to his people. Now he is advanced in age. In this scene he sees the fulfillment of his hopes even as his time is running out.
The stance of the believer is to leave timing to God. God has a plan, and we trust that God’s plan will be accomplished. We understand that its fulfillment might not occur in our lifetime. Jews and Christians both accept the saying of Jesus, “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37). Our service is to build the kingdom, knowing that we may never see the results of the seeds we plant.
But every once and a while, God’s timing is on our side. Occasionally, we are able to witness the outcome of our dreams in our lifetime. We may be fortunate enough to bond with a grandchild who shares with us a particular passion for work or art. We may be able to wonder at the blossoming of a project which we initiated years before in timidity and doubt. We might experience reconciliation in a relationship which long ago we had written off as impossible to save. Such moments are special gifts. We should savor them with Simeon, because it is not always given to see God’s salvation with our own eyes.
Reflection: Am I thankful for the promises which have been fulfilled in my lifetime?
Prayer: Faithful God, give me courage to serve even when I will not see the outcome and gratitude when I, like Simeon, can hold your promise in my arms.
Luke 4:16-30—The Familiar Can Be an Obstacle
The gospel of Mark reports Jesus visiting Nazareth in the midst of his Galilean ministry (Mark 6:1-6). Luke radically expands this visit and locates it as the first scene after Jesus’ temptation. Luke uses Jesus’ return to his hometown as the overture to his gospel. He employs words from Isaiah 61:1-2 to identify Jesus as one who cares for the poor and oppressed (verse 21). This passage clearly presents Jesus as the Messiah promised by Isaiah. It also offers a disturbing response to that revelation. The people of Nazareth recognize Jesus’ gracious words (verse 22). But they ultimately reject him because they know him too well. He was too close to them to be acceptable (verses, 24, 29).
Sometimes the greatest obstacle to recognizing God’s gifts among us is that they are too familiar. We can extol God’s power in people who we have never met. But we remain blind to the grace in our own surroundings. Whether it comes from a reluctance to change perceptions which have already been formed or from a jealousy that someone near to us could surpass us, we can be slow to acknowledge greatness among us. This passage warns us to avoid such blindness. Parents should be eager to have their children surpass them in education and success. Teachers should rejoice when their students attain knowledge and abilities beyond their instruction. Colleagues should feel satisfaction when one of their own is recognized and praised. God is always working in the world and does not limit grace to exotic places. What a loss it would be to miss the miracles which flourish in our own backyard.
Reflection: Have I ever allowed my closeness to someone blind me to their accomplishments?
Prayer: God of salvation, let me rejoice in the gifted people who serve you, both when they are strangers and when they are friends.
Matthew 11:1-6—We Should Examine Those Who Speak for God
John the Baptist was a Jew of his time. He expected God to establish the kingdom, but he was also aware of how many different images of the kingdom were present among his contemporaries. While sitting in prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus to validate his ministry (verse 3). Jesus answers by citing several oracles of Isaiah (26:19, 29:18-19, 35:5-6, 61:1). Jesus’ argument is that if the blind can see and the deaf hear, if the poor have the good news preached to them and the dead are raised, then certainly God is working through him.
As believers we must conduct our own search for God’s action among us. Not every speaker speaks for God. Not every leader is working for the kingdom. What criteria should we use as we search for what is genuine? It is, of course, important to listen carefully to what people say. Goals and intentions are often clarified by words. Yet Jesus’ response to John offers a fuller perspective. Jesus cites the words of Isaiah, but it is the deeds of his ministry which establish that his mission is true. It is because the disciples of John can recognize the concrete realities which Isaiah’s words describe that the work of Jesus gains validity. We believe that God continues to work though a variety of agents in our world. We, like the Baptist, must not fail to examine them. As we listen to leaders, politicians, and fellow workers, we must take note of what they do. When the blind begin to see and the poor hear the good news, then we can be sure that God is working through them.
Reflection: What figures in the world today give evidence that they are doing God’s will?
Prayer: Creator God, help me recognize your presence and power in the deeds of others, both those who use your name and those who do not.
Acts 3:11-26—We Must Keep the Good News Pure
The speech of Peter in the Temple connects the work of Jesus with the faith of Israel. The God who glorified Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verse 13). Jesus’ suffering and work of universal restoration was foretold by all the prophets of Israel (verses 18, 21, 24). Peter’s speech stresses the continuity between the two testaments.
It also contains a charge which we must interpret very carefully. Several times during the speech, it appears that Peter is placing the responsibility for Jesus’ death upon the Jewish people. The people are said to have handed Jesus over to Pilate and to have killed Jesus, the Author of life (verses 13, 15). Historically, some Jewish temple authorities most likely cooperated with Pilate in leading Jesus to the cross. Yet the ultimate responsibility was in Roman hands, and Jewish involvement was limited. There is a tendency throughout the New Testament to diminish Roman responsibility and increase the role of the Jews. When this tendency is maximized, as in this passage, the entire Jewish people seem to be held responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. The Second Vatican Council forbade Catholics to draw such a conclusion from the scriptures. Jesus’ death cannot be blamed on all Jews of his time or on Jews today (Nostra Aetate, #4). In this Christmas season as we honor Christ who was born a Jew, we should adhere to the teaching of the Council. Even as we proclaim the birth of our Messiah, we must avoid false and detrimental charges against his people.
Reflection: Am I willing to disagree with opinions which blame the Jews for Jesus’ death?
Prayer: God of Abraham, as I prepare to celebrate the birth of your Son, make me grateful for the faith of Israel in which he came to understand his mission.
Acts 8:26-40—We Need Interpreters for Our Faith
Philip is sent by God to an Ethiopian court official who is on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem (verse 27). The man was probably a “God-fearer,” one who accepted monotheism and Jewish worship but had not actually converted to Judaism. The Ethiopian is reading Isaiah 53:7-8. He is, however, unsure of the passage’s meaning (verse 31). Philip guides him to see that Isaiah is speaking about Jesus and his passion (verse 35). Under the influence of the Spirit, Philip’s explanation not only moves the Ethiopian’s mind but changes his life. He comes to believe in Jesus as the Christ and is baptized (verse 38). This passage reminds us that faith seldom comes directly from the biblical text. It is mediated by people who open the text for us.
On this Christmas Eve, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Messiah, it is appropriate to remember the people who made the text of the Bible live for us. This certainly would include teachers and family members who first told us the biblical stories and explained them. But it also includes all those people in our lives who by their faith and example led us to Christ. We remember our parents and grandparents, the pastors, friends, and fellow believers in whose example our faith was born and has matured. Some of these people may still be alive to share this Christmas with us. Others may already be with Christ. We should remember them all with gratitude. Through their interpretation we came to understand the scriptural story. Through their lives we have received the faith to celebrate Christmas.
Reflection: Who are the people who have shaped my own faith? Have I thanked them?
Prayer: Faithful God, I thank you for your inspired word which guides my faith. I thank you as well for the people through whom my faith was born.
Matthew 1:18-25—Do Not Forget the Periphery
Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is very different from that of Luke. Luke tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the child in a manger, the shepherds, and the angels’ song. In Matthew’s story the actual birth of Jesus is mentioned in six words found within a subordinate clause: “until she had borne a son” (verse 25). Matthew devotes his narration not to the main event of Jesus’ birth but to all the unusual circumstances within Jesus’ family. Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit and without Joseph’s involvement (verse 18). Joseph struggles with what to do and plans to dismiss Mary until he receives a message in a dream (verses 19-21). Rather than focusing on the actual birth, Matthew describes all the family issues which surround it.
This approach of Matthew is helpful as we celebrate Christmas or any family occasion. When we gather with family and friends. The main event will usually be a festive meal. But the people who sit around our table will bring with them their own issues, and many of them will be difficult. Sickness, divorce, economic hardship, or grief may well be gathered around our table. It is important for us to be attentive to such burdens. A few minutes to listen or a simple acknowledgement that we recognize their pain can express our care for those who share this day with us. Of course, the main event will be the holiday meal with good food, stories, and toasts. But, like Matthew, we can attend to what lies at the periphery of the celebration. There in the difficult issues of human life, it is also possible to celebrate Christmas.
Reflection: Who will I see today who I know is carrying a heavy burden?
Prayer: Jesus, whenever I gather with others, allow me to recognize the pain of the people around me and support them in your name.
Matthew 2:1-12—We Need Trust, When the Trail Runs Cold
The Magi took a great risk in seeking the newborn King of the Jews. They entrusted their journey to the guidance of a star (verse 2). It led them from the East to the vicinity of Jerusalem and then disappeared. The trail had run cold. In the space which the star’s disappearance had created, the Magi did not panic. They consulted with others; they acted upon good advice; and they trusted. The Magi consulted with Herod and the chief priests. Even though Herod’s intentions were not pure, his information was correct. The Magi acted upon it. They set out for Bethlehem and found the Christ Child (verse 9). The Magi could not have completed their journey had they not trusted. They needed to believe that the same God, who had guided them through a star, would help them reach their destination.
The Magi’s trust is a model for us. Often in life we set out towards some good goal: a project of service, building a relationship, searching for the right vocation. We believe that God is with us and guiding us. Yet in the process of that quest, needed direction can suddenly disappear. We can become lost, unsure of how to proceed. In that confusing space, we like the Magi, should consult with people we trust and act upon the advice they offer. Above all we must believe that even though our direction is unclear, God is still faithful. God does not begin to lead us and then forget us. We must be confident like St. Paul, believing that God who began the good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6).
Reflection: Did I have experiences in which I was lost and unsure how to proceed? What did I do?
Prayer: Faithful God, you led the Magi through the guidance of a star. Help me believe that you are guiding me, when I can see the star and when I cannot.
Matthew 2:13-15—God May Call Us to Flee
The world is not a safe place. As soon as King Herod realizes that the Magi had tricked him, he sets about to destroy the Christ Child. God warns Joseph in a dream that danger is afoot and tells him to take the mother and child to Egypt and remain there. The journey to Egypt reminds Matthew of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Like the patriarch whose name he bears, Joseph brings his family to live in Egypt (Gen 47:5-6). Like his ancestors who came to Egypt to avoid the evil of famine, Joseph flees with his family to avoid the evil of Herod.
We must all face the reality of evil in our lives. We can be harmed in our relationships when people manipulate us or abuse us. Unhealthy patterns in our families can instill a low self esteem and lead us to depression. There are two ways to deal with such problems: confrontation or flight. Confrontation is to be preferred. When it is possible, it is best to speak the truth and assert our right to dignity and fair treatment. We should insist that abuse cease and that others treat us with respect. But some people do not respond to confrontation. In some circumstances our effort to face the problem only leads to greater abuse. In such cases we may have to remove ourselves from the offending party in order to protect ourselves from further harm. When people will not respond and change, the directions spoken to Joseph may become ours as well: “Get up and flee to a safe place.”
Reflection: How do I deal with manipulative people who treat me or others with disrespect?
Prayer: Saving God, you are with me in the presence of evil. Give me guidance so that I will know when to challenge what is wrong and when to walk away.
Matthew 2:16-18—We Are Called to Solidarity with Those Who Suffer
In the middle of his infancy narrative, Matthew includes this scene of horror. Infuriated by the deception of the Magi, Herod slaughters all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Seeing a threat to his own power, this unjust king turns to unspeakable violence. It is easy to understand why this disgusting scene is routinely omitted from our Christmas celebrations. When we strive to remember the joy and peace of the season, this gruesome narrative is clearly out of step. Yet its bloodletting is connected to the gospel message. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has begun the work of establishing a kingdom in which all evil, all violence, will come to an end. The aim of Christ’s work is to destroy the abusive power which Herod’s slaughter so vividly demonstrates. When Christ returns and establishes the kingdom, the power of evil will cease.
Until that time, however, evil remains a part of our world. We continue to hear of carnage occasioned by violence and greed. We know all too well of the poverty which destroys human life as effectively as Herod’s command. As followers of Christ, we must stand in solidarity with those who suffer the consequences of such evil. Even though they do not live in our neighborhoods, we cannot turn away from brothers and sisters throughout the world who must deal with the horrors of war and oppression. Matthew connects the terror of this scene with the lamentation of Rachel who weeps for her dead children (verse 18). We must hear her cry in the violence of our world and confront the evil which occasions it.
Reflection: What steps can I take to oppose violence in my relationships at home or at work?
Prayer: God, you promise a kingdom of peace. Give me compassion to mourn with those who suffer and courage to oppose those who oppress them.
Matthew 2:19-23—God Is with Us in What Is New
God does not only lead Joseph and his family to Egypt. God leads them back home. When Herod dies and the threat is gone, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel (verse 20). Joseph obeys but is afraid to return to Bethlehem. So he settles in the district of Galilee in a town called Nazareth. Joseph comes home, but not to the home he had before.
Joseph’s journey mirrors our human experience. We face disruptions in our lives. We are led in directions we did not anticipate and frequently do not desire. Even as we deal with such complications, there remains within us a yearning to go home. We cannot wait until “things get back to normal.” We want to return to the way things were. With effort and grace we can often push through the upheaval. We endure the medical treatment, survive the divorce, outlive the rejection. But as we seek to return to the place we were forced to leave, we discover that time has passed. People are missing. We have changed. Things may in time return to a set routine, but not the to routine we once knew.
Matthew’s infancy narrative gives us hope. The new town which Joseph chooses as home has been foreseen by the prophets (verse 23). We claim a similar providence in our lives. Even when new patterns seem foreign and new circumstances are difficult, we trust that they are a part of God’s plan. The places we must leave are seldom recoverable. But God is faithful. When God is with us, we can always find a home.
Reflection: Have I ever struggled to establish familiar patterns after a disruption in my life?
Prayer: Faithful God, you are present in every circumstance. When my life shows no comfort or consistency, support me in your love.
Luke 2:1-14—We Find Our King in Swaddling Clothes
There are many ways to appreciate Luke’s famous description of Jesus’ birth. But today let us focus on one detail. After he is born, Jesus is wrapped in bands of cloth or swaddling clothes. This condition of Jesus is important to Luke because he mentions it two times in his narration and refers to it as a “sign” (verses 7 and12). What is the significance of these bands of cloth? As is often the case, a clue is found in the Jewish tradition. The Book of Wisdom describes the great King Solomon in similar terms. For all of his greatness Solomon was mortal, formed in his mother’s womb, entering the world with a cry and a gasp for air, and nursed with care in swaddling clothes (Wis 7:1-7). Luke may have employed the reference to swaddling clothes in order to show the full humanity of Jesus. Although chosen by God as Messiah and conceived without the intervention of a human father, Jesus lived in the constraints of the human condition.
Jesus’ humanity reminds us that God is to be found in the particular experiences of our lives. God is spirit, but God finds us in the concrete world. We discover God’s grace in the joy of our children’s greeting, in the passionate love for our spouse, in the thoughtfulness of a faithful friend, in the struggle to earn a living, in the pain which death imparts. Swaddling clothes were used to restrict an infant because of the child’s vulnerability. These bands of cloth are a sign that God will be found in the specific and at times limiting conditions of our own lives.
Reflection: In what concrete circumstances can I recognize God’s presence to me today?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, through your resurrection you sit at the right hand of the Father. Allow me also to detect your presence in the material world in which I live.
Luke 2:15-20—Reflection Leads to Trust
Luke regularly presents Mary as a model for believers. She accepts her vocation as Jesus’ mother with faith (Luke 1:38). She not only hears God’s word but follows it (Luke 8:21). In today’s passage she displays yet another aspect of discipleship. She actively reflects upon God’s action in her life (verse 19). Mary was chosen for a unique role in the plan of salvation, but she was well aware that her understanding of God’s purposes was limited. In the days after Jesus’ birth she could not yet see the full impact of his ministry nor the frightening challenge of his death. But Mary knew that the limited insight which had been given to her was to be treasured. She believed that pondering its meaning would prepare her for the future.
We are called to follow the example of Mary. We must take time to contemplate the mystery of God’s gifts. We will never be able to exhaust what our children mean to us or how important a deep friendship is to our security and joy. We cannot enumerate all the ways that our talents and abilities give us satisfaction or how our dreams spur us to grow. But the role of a believer is to ponder on what is incomplete and to thank God for the gifts we have today.
Our journey of faith mirrors the unfolding revelation we have examined in this journey through the Messianic oracles. We recognize God’s goodness, long-awaited and imperfectly seen. But when we reflect on what has been given, the little we do see overwhelms us with graciousness and allows us to trust in the goodness which is still to come.
Reflection: Do I take the time to ponder God’s goodness and thereby strengthen my own faith?
Prayer: All-knowing God, I can only imperfectly see your love for me. Allow me to treasure what I know is true and entrust the future to your care.