Lectionary commentary: Christmas Day
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 52:7-10
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 98:1-6. R/. v. 3
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews, 1:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 1:1-18
The thing about the Hebrew Bible, the Holy Scriptures of the Jewish people, is that it is not short-sighted. The Bible we inherit from our Jewish brothers and sisters insists that the God of Israel is concerned with the whole of creation and that God has a plan, a plan that is working itself out in human history. To be sure, the story of the people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the great mothers Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel reveals God’s concern for one people. With them a covenant is made:
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.
The prophet Ezekiel assured those who listened to his words in far away in Babylon, the place of exile and despair. He created hope. God had not deserted them. Rather God had gone into exile with them and was determined to bring them safely home:
My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
However the Bible story does not begin with Abraham. It begins with Adam, with the creation of earth and sky, man and woman. God’s vision begins beyond the horizons of Israel. But humanity, listening to the lies of the serpent, turns in upon itself and paradise is undone. The real world we live is born and God has to deal with that. The earth was filled with violence (RSV: Genesis 6:11; 6:13) and the waters of the flood came. But God gave Noah the rainbow sign, a covenant with humanity that there will be no more destruction. The future of humanity is secured. We have God’s word on that.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth”.
With the call of Abraham it might seem that God has turned his attention to one people and condemned the rest of humanity to its own devices. God does not ditch men and women of the world and reserve his blessing for one people. Rather the prophets reveal that the faith of the people of ancient Israel was always that God had a saving purpose that embraced all peoples. Jewish faith always trusted in God’s providence, God’s care for God’s creation never ceases—as long as there is a rainbow in the sky. God has, the Hebrew Bible insists, a future of all humanity, that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all will be well, all manner of thing will be well.
Jews (and many Christians) do not accept (as Catholic and Orthodox Christians do) that the Book of Tobit belongs in our Bible. But it is still a book that expresses a depth of faith that is consistent with the ultimate vision of the prophets. On his death-bed Tobit revealed to his son Tobias what would come to pass in God’s good time:
All things whatsoever that were spoken by the prophets of Israel, whom God sent, will come about, and nothing shall be lacking from all their words, but all things will come to pass in their appointed times … not a single word of [God’s] speech will prove wrong.
Our brothers living in the land of Israel will be scattered and taken from the good land into captivity … But God will again have mercy on them, and will bring them back into the land of Israel … And all the nations throughout the whole of the earth, all will turn and fear God sincerely, and they will abandon their lying idols, which led them astray, and they will bless the God of the ages in righteousness …
There is no time scale in Tobit’s predictions but there is an expectation that God is faithful and will be true to the words spoken through the prophets.
Israel’s faith looked to the past; it endured the present; it believed the future would conform to the promise of God. The story of the faith in the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of hope. The Christian story is another chapter in that long story, and it, too, is a story of faith and hope. The story of Jesus is a surprise but it conforms to a pattern. The God of Surprises never ceases to surprise. Eight centuries before the child was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Hosea imagined a glorious future:
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them,
“You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God”.
To be sure, some of Israel’s prophets looked to a future messiah, a God-sent “anointed one” but, as always with God, we got more than we hoped for. Nobody anticipated that the messiah would be the Son of God. But those who inherited the faith of Isaiah and clung to it through centuries of pain and suffering knew that one day, one blessed day,
All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 52:7-10
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
The word of the Lord.
Exile is the most prominent theme in the Hebrew Bible, either as a fact or a metaphor. The very construction of the books of the Torah centre around exile (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The first exile is from the garden. Then Abraham is called into exile from his own land. The exile in Egypt leaves an indelible scar on the memory of the people. Exile becomes the place where God does not dwell. The experience of slavery is the experience of living outside the Presence of God, all the more so if prophets insist that loss of faith in God causes loss of God’s protective care.
The prophet who wrote the second section of the Book of Isaiah, that is, chapters 40 to 66, apparently lived in exile in Babylon and when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, hope began to imagine a return to the beloved land of Israel. Above all, hope began to imagine the joy of seeing Jerusalem again, of rebuilding the Temple, and being secure in the Presence of God.
Read the lines that preface today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah. Imagine the hope and expectant joy in the heart of the prophet who is inspired to announce that the nightmare is over:
put on your strength, O Zion;
put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for there shall no more come into you
the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake yourself from the dust and arise;
be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive daughter of Zion.
The voice of the herald that summons the people back to Jerusalem, to their city, to their God, is announcing that God’s victory is at hand.
The vocabulary of today’s first reading is of immense significance to those who read the pages of the Christian New Testament. The writers of the New Testament had before them the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the text called the Septuagint. The Hebrew Bible uses the word basar. The word means “good tidings”, “good news”, “gospel”, especially good news of a victory in battle.
This is especially the case in Second Samuel 18 where two heralds run to Jerusalem to tell David that his forces have won a great victory over his rebel son Absalom. Eight times in that chapter basar is used to convey good news of a victory won on the battlefield. It is not just good news. The word means that the good news is of a victory won on the field of battle.
The Greek text on the desk of our gospel-makers saw the verb εὐαγγελίζομαι ὑμῖν (euavgelizomai hymin, I gospel you). This is the meaning everywhere in the New Testament, though it is most often turned into a noun. For example, in our Christmas story we are familiar with the words of the angel speaking to the shepherds:
Fear not, for behold! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
But Luke does not use a noun here. It would be more exact to translate his Greek sentence in this way:
Fear not, for behold! I gospel you with great joy that will be for all the people.
That is what the Greek text of Isaiah means. The herald is gospelling everyone with the news of a victory. Everyone in Zion, in Jerusalem, is gospelled with the good news that “the Lord has returned to Zion”. Jerusalem will be rebuilt. Notice the fighting terms: the Lord will bare his holy arm and “we shall see the victory of our God”.
Of course, it is difficult to see the fighting prowess of God in a new-born swaddled and lying in a manger. But, as St John’s prologue declares in today’s Gospel, there is more to this baby than meets the eye.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 98:1-6. R/. v. 3
R/. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvellous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him. R/.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel. R/.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises! R/.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. R/.
As with Psalm 96, serving as Responsorial for Midnight Mass, the composer of Psalm 98 assures everyone that what is offered is a new song. But again the psalm is, like Hamlet, full of quotations.
That does not diminish its worth. For the whole of the world is invited to look to what God has achieved for the people of Israel. In saving the people of the covenant, God has shown to the world that salvation is God’s work. What salvation means is righteousness, that is, justice. God’s justice is not a matter of human courts. It is justice that flows from steadfast love, from the very nature of the Lord. This is a love that embraces the world and is offered to the world and to all who dwell therein. The Lord who comes to rule the earth will judge the world with the same love as that bestowed on Israel. All God’s chillun got wings.
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews, 1:1-6
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God's angels worship him.”
The word of the Lord.
The letter to Jewish (Hebrew) Christians is the most beautifully written book among the 27 books that make up our New Testament. Down to modern times everyone, or nearly everyone (there were dissenting voices in the past), believed that it was written by St Paul. On the 8th April, 1546 the Council of Trent listed the letter ad Hebraeos, to Hebrews, as Pauline. On June 24, 1914 the Pontifical Biblical Commission affirmed that St Paul was the original author but the final text was the work of an editor. Indeed, until the reforms of Second Vatican, the liturgy of the Catholic Church announced a reading on Christmas Day as “from the letter of the apostle Paul to the Hebrews”. After the Council reform, we now have “A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews”.
This may seem to be an academic matter for scholars . But it is very important. For the Letter to Hebrew Christians gives another Jewish interpretation of Jesus to compare with that of Paul of Tarsus. This sophisticated letter is the only writing in the New Testament to present the heavenly priesthood of Jesus. Paul never says that Jesus is a priest or a High Priest (or that anyone else is a Christian priest). The Letter to Hebrew Christians repeatedly insists that Christ Jesus, exalted to the heavens, becomes a priest forever. Indeed, the author of Hebrews centres the whole of his theology around the heavenly priesthood of Christ Jesus.
One other consideration: Hebrews is not a letter. It is a homily. Rather it is letter that contains the homily. It seems that those who first heard to homily preached were so impressed that they sent it around to brothers and sisters in other communities. The ending of Hebrews sends good wishes to the recipients but you will notice that it does not begin with greetings. It goes straight into the homily.
The homily given by this unknown Jew who had come to faith in Christ Jesus begins with an exordium.An exordium (a Latin word) is an introduction, a paragraph, that gathers together all that is to follow in a summary that creates expectation and an anticipation of elucidation. What is set down in summary form will be teased out in all that follows. The exordium to this homily outlines the whole story of God’s salvation.
Throughout the history of humanity God has spoken through the prophets with assurance that God was not silent. God spoke and when there were silences, they were never without an understanding that silence would not prevail. For God spoke “at many times and in many ways”. God spoke by means of covenants, by laws and instruction, by words of encouragement and chastisement.
Now there is something new under the sun. God speaks through his Son, who is the inheritor of all divine responsibility. This Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature. The Son is clothed with God’s very self. The Son is the perfect expression of the very heart of God. His words are God’s words. God’s responsibility for creation is now in the hands of the Son.
These last days, the days when creation is making its way to its destiny, humanity is exposed to the glory of God. This long opening sentence, all of fifty-one words, proclaims that the Son is now where the radiance of God’s glory is to be seen, experienced, and celebrated. The Son was present when the universe was created. One might express what the preacher here means in the words of John’s Gospel, words we hear this blessed day:
All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made
that was made.John 1:3
The Letter to Colossians proclaims the same exalted understanding of this Son:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The purpose of the life on earth of of God’s Son is given in four words, in the original Greek and in English translation:
… making purification for sins.
The purpose invested in the sending of this Son was to wipe out the sin of the world, to take on his shoulders the burden of a deformed humanity:
… he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
Not an Angel
Christ Jesus is not an angel. He is the Son. He is born of God. What the Father is, so is the Son. An angel is a messenger. The Son is the Son. We will learn that the Son is the one priest who gives himself in order that humanity may become the reflection of God in all creation. Even the angels must worship the Son.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light,
that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made through him,
yet the world did not know him.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him,
who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
(John bore witness about him,
and cried out, “This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me ranks before me,
because he was before me. ’”)
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
For the law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God;
the only God, who is at the Father's side,
he has made him known.
The Gospel of the Lord.
[The first 18 verses of John’s Gospel are usually described as a prologue. It is a combination of a poem (in green above) and a commentary (in red above) concerning the part played by John the Baptist in announcing the coming of Jesus the Messiah. What the poetry does is theologically to interpret the history of what John did in the preparing the way of Jesus. What we have is the fact and the meaning of the fact.]
Each Gospel has its own perspective. At the centre of Mark’s Gospel is the betrayal and death of Jesus. Matthew is concerned to underline how humanity can do the will of God on earth as perfectly “as it is [done] in heaven”. Luke wrote two books with one intention: to reveal how the community of disciples, enlivened by the Spirit of Holiness, must embrace the world with the good news (Luke 1:19). The Gospel of John is about the Word made flesh who “dwelt among us”, and in that dwelling, we have seen his glory, glory such as the glory of the Father. The other Gospels may be said to stand at the foot of the Cross. John’s Gospel stands at the Throne of Glory.
It seems to me that the Jesus in the Fourth Gospel speaks from heaven, as it were, and reveals his perspective of all that was done on earth. It is as if Jesus was disclosing his true identity and the meaning of all that he accomplished on earth. It is not an historical document; it is an interpretation of what God set out to do in sending his Son to dwell amongst us.
The word glory and words related to that word, such as glories, glorified, glorify, glorifying, and glorious, occur 424 times in the ESV translation of the Bible. These words turn up 41 times in the Gospel of John. The word glory occurs 19 times. The word glorified occurs 11 times. It is clear that the concept of glory is at the heart of the Fourth Gospel. When the story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee has been told, the author of the Gospel adds a note in case readers and hearers have missed the point:
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Notice the words here and their connectedness: signs, glory, believing.
You might say that what happened at the wedding feast was a miracle. But you would be wrong. The Greek word used for “miracle” in Mark, Matthew, and Luke is dunamis. Miracles are called “works of power”. You can see that the word “dynamite” comes from the Greek word. But in John’s Gospel such events are called signs. In other words, the writer moves from emphasising the event to pointing to what it means. What does the healing of the blind man tells readers and hearers about Jesus, about God? What does raising Lazarus from the dead reveal about Jesus, about God. There are seven such signs in the Fourth Gospel, though it might be better to say that everything in the Fourth Gospel is a sign of something else. Jesus himself is a sign, a light that enlightens everyone who can read the signs.
The first eighteen verses of the Fourth Gospel form a prologue to the whole work. The Prologue tells who Jesus is, where he comes from, why he has been sent, how he is received, and the outcome of his coming to dwell amongst us.
The first thing to notice in this identity profile is that there is no name. Though the man sent to be a witness is named (John), the one to whom he gives witness is not named. We are told that John came as a witness “to bear witness to the light, that all might believe in him”. But who is this “him”?
This light is none other than ”the true light, which enlightens everyone”. But he is not named. We are told that he “was in the world”, that ‘the world was made through him”, that “he came to his own” and that “his own did not know him”. He came, we are old, to “his own people” and they did not receive him”. But who is this man who is rejected by his own?
We are told a most extraordinary thing:
… all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”.
But we are not told his name.
We are furnished with an identity:
he became flesh
he dwelt amongst us
we have seen his glory.
glory as of the only Son of the Father
full of grace and truth
from his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
But he still has no name. Then finally it is revealed, not till the last sentence:
Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
But how is this Jesus Christ able to bestow grace and truth? It is because, though no one has ever seen God, this Jesus has seen God and he is God. What God is in heaven, as it were, Jesus is on earth. And the mission given to the one who became flesh is to make God known. To see Jesus Christ is to see God. This is the glory that that is made known, the very glory of God. This is what the Fourth Gospel is about. Every word reveals who the Word is and to what purpose the Word was made flesh.
IN THE END
… is the beginning. The Fourth Gospel ends twice. Chapter 21, attempting to end on a high note, has this:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
By any standards this is poor. Many other things! Jesus didn’t do “things”. He gave signs that spoke of God, that brought to earth the glory of God, and that pointed to the destiny of humanity in the safe hands of God.
I suppose …! Really? There is no “I suppose” about the story of Jesus. And the Word was made flesh for a far greater purpose than to stock a library of books.
Chapter 21 is an addition to the Fourth Gospel and, though it has some importance, it does not have the theological clout to match all that has gone before.
But consider the end of chapter 20:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
That is an ending. It sets out the purpose of all that we have read and heard. The Word has become flesh and given signs that, once read and understood, bring believing to birth. They “signs”, the whole of the text, are written in this book that readers and hearers may believe, and in believing experience the very Presence of the One who gives life, eternal life.
The eighteen verses of today’s reading emphasise that the Word was with God and came to earth. In the Book of Genesis the first voice to be heard is the voice of God:
And God said, ‘Let there be light’.
I AM the light of the world!
The words of Isaiah, spoken in hope that exile would end, that the yoke of oppression would be broken:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
We hear the opening words of John’s Gospel knowing that the darkness has been banished, the light has dawned, and is shining on all who dwelt in darkness. The Word who in the beginning was with God, indeed, was God, is the light shining in the darkness.
Here is how one of the signs ends:
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go free”. John 11:40-41
What God achieves in sending the Son to dwell among us is the unbinding of the world. Or as the Jesus in John’s Gospel (10:10) explains,
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.