Lectionary commentary: Christmas Eve
Father O'Hanlon provides us with his meditations on the readings of the first Mass of Christmas - the Midnight Mass.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 9:2-7
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1-3. 11-13. R/. Luke 2:11
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to Titus 2:11-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 2:1-14
The birth of a baby is a joy. Even if the circumstances surrounding the coming of a child into the world are fraught with misgivings and anguish, even if the pain of its delivery must be bravely borne, in the moment of its coming, disquiet is set aside:
When a woman is in labour
she has sorrow because her hour has come;
but when she is delivered of the child,
she no longer remembers the pain,
for joy that a child is born into the world.
And when the parents are past hope and have begun to look to a childless old age, rejoicing is beyond measure:
Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.
She called the child Isaac, which mean 'He laughs.' Childless Hannah, the pitiful wife of Elkanah, (how cruel pity can be!) in a household overrun with children, turned to desperate prayer:
O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him back to the LORD to serve him all his days…
First Book of Samuel 1:11
She named the child after God, for Samuel means 'the name of God.'
The child of Elizabeth and Zachariah, too, was an answer to prayer. An angel of the LORD, Gabriel by name, said to the old priest in the Temple,
Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son… you will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
The child danced for joy in Elizabeth's womb and the old couple called the lad John, which means 'God is gracious.'
Joseph and Mary were gifted a child. He was not old. She was not old. There would be other children about the house. We know their names: James, Joseph, Judah, Simeon, and the girls, too, (Mark 6:3).
But the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of the son called Jesus were so extraordinary, so beyond human hope and expectation, that his name is above the names of Isaac, Samuel, John, above the names of other little ones in the Nazareth home. For these children were named in thanksgiving to the God who heard the prayers of the childless or in memory of great ones of old.
Jesus, (Joshua, Jeshua), was named after a man of victories. The child of Mary is named in anticipation of saving but not from military disaster. His story will be gospel, news of a victory won. He will save the world from the world’s sin. He will be Immanuel, the very Presence of God, whose greeting is always Go in peace:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to call him Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.
Who was Jesus?
The answer begins on this blessed night. We listen, we sing, we pray, we are gifted. In remembering the birth of this child we do so standing at the foot of a cross and moving from there to an empty tomb, and on to an upper room. We move from delight to pain to astonishment, and to gladness. For from crib to upper room the intent was always to call us to peace and to be peacemakers. These blessed days are full of the Holy Spirit and that Spirit possesses us, the community who remembers and, in remembering, acknowledges what has been laid upon our shoulders as surely as our hearts are full of joy. This silent night, this holy night, we are gifted and confirmed. Gifted with the child. Confirmed to proclaim that what we have experienced is joy to the world. In this child the world has been resurrected to a holy place.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 9:2-7
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.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government
and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
The word of the LORD.
In the midst of invasions and conquests, a poet’s imagination, with hope and faith, and love of God, imagines a new future, God’s future: for unto us a child is born!
Every engine of war, every tramping soldier, every garment of blood, the rod of every oppressor, will be excised from human experience, from human memory: for unto us a child is born!
For unto us a son is given. His name reveals gifts beyond all expectation. Wise counselling will prevail for the son given is the son of a Father with desire and love to give. The greatest command given to ancient and modern Israel is,
Listen then in the stillness of this night to
the Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father,
the Prince of Peace.
What is given is beyond all hope for the rods of oppressors still beat the back of our world: For unto us a child is given. On the shoulders of the child born this blessed night, on the shoulders of the Son given to us, is placed but one command. His is the vocation to create peace, and that his peace will have no end.
And what a peace it will be! From a child mangered in a stable and swaddled by a blessed mother justice and righteousness, from this time forth, and forever more will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Of this be assured, for,
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1-3. 11-13. R/. Luke 2:11
R/. Today a Saviour has been born to us;
he is Christ the LORD.
Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name. R/.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous works among all the peoples!
For great the LORD, and greatly to be praised. R/.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth. R/.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness. R/.
The poet insists that his song is a new song. But it is a song that borrows lines from many psalms. However, that does not diminish its appeal. There may be no songs like the old songs.
What is glorious is its perspective. It sings to and for the world. Every one on earth is called to sing to the LORD. Everyone is called upon to bless the LORD. To bless the LORD God is to acknowledge that God is creator, the one who “made the heavens” (verse 5). Though people worship many gods, it is the LORD who does his marvellous works among all the peoples. Praise the LORD must be the song of humanity, the song of all creation for he comes to judge the earth.
But Isaiah this blessed eve reminds us that God judges with justice and righteousness. The quality of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness is always strained through the sieve of love, that steadfast love that endures forever. It is his love that gives confidence to all humanity to sing in gladness and rejoice in peace. The response to the psalm gives us all the assurance we could ever need:
Today a Saviour has been born to us;
he is Christ the LORD.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to Titus, 2:11-14
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
The word of the LORD.
There are a few scholars who are convinced that St. Luke wrote the letters of Timothy and that of Titus, expounding the teaching of the great apostle to a generation or two after Paul’s death. The style of these letters is not unlike Luke’s familiar style in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. However, that is not enough to carry the day. Nonetheless, the teaching of the paragraph of Titus offered to us on this blessed night is entirely apt, a priceless of advice that urges us to realise that Christians must take what we celebrate and proclaim it to the world. What we receive at Christmas is not just for Christmas.
What is given to us by the life, death, and resurrection of this child must be taken to heart. What his life achieved and continues to achieve is make a people that is fit to walk his way:
a people who are zealous for good works.
To live godly lives in the present age is to acknowledge the loving-kindness of what we celebrate this night. To give fitting thanks is to accept that we must live and proclaim what we have received. We are called to be what we see on this and every Christmas Day.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke, 2:1-14
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace
among those with whom he is pleased!
The gospel of the LORD.
Gospels are rare books. Thousands of plays have been written, hundreds of novels have been published, and millions of poems have been penned. History and science, religion and philosophy, politics, and economics—all have spawned numerous tomes.
But Gospels are rare books. There are about thirty books named gospels and only four of these are venerated by millions of people as holy. Of these four only two speak of the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Of the four Gospels venerated by Christian people, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, only Matthew and Luke contain accounts of the events surrounding the coming of Jesus into our world. When we compare these two Gospels, at first sight we are confronted with difficulties in answering the simplest of questions. We cannot name with certainty the place where Jesus was born. We cannot be sure, without fear of contradiction, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We cannot be certain that his parents fled with the child into Egypt. We might have to acquit Herod of infanticide if unassailable proof were demanded in court. We cannot, beyond reproof, assert that magi travelled from the east and gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We need to be careful what we say about shepherds and few have heard the angels singing. The contradictions and contrasts between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the infancy of Jesus are easily listed. The more obvious are:
|Gospel of Matthew|
1. Joseph and Mary are natives of Bethlehem.
|Gospel of Luke|
Joseph and Mary are natives of Nazareth.
|2. Joseph is married to Mary.||Mary has no husband.|
|3. An unnamed angel tells Joseph a child is to be born.||Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive.|
|4. Joseph is told to name the child.||Mary names the child.|
|5. The child is born in a house.||The child is placed in a manger.|
|6. Magi visit the home of the child.||Shepherds visit the manger.|
|7. The family is forced to flee to Egypt by Herod's evil plans.||The family make a peaceful pilgrimage to the Temple.|
|8. Children are slain in Bethlehem.||Jesus is presented in the Temple.|
|9. The family are forced to resettle in the obscure village of Nazareth.||The family return 'to their own town of Nazareth.'|
|10. Matthew has many quotations.||Luke has beautiful hymns.|
What are we to make of these apparent contradictions, inconsistencies, and confusions? We could try to reconcile them, to perform some plastic surgery to eradicate the wrinkles and tuck in the awkward protuberances. This, in fact, is what Christians do. They turn two stories into a single mock-up of what they find and miss the meaning of both.
Our Christmas Crib, invented by St. Francis of Assisi, has much to answer for. St. Francis realised the power of a visual aid, an aid to understanding, to appreciation, to prayer. To see the infant in a manger, to look on the mother, to stand guard with Joseph, to join with shepherds and wise men, to sing with the angels, is to open hearts to the wonder of God and the simplicity of love—that is what Francis hoped would happen. That is what happened when, on Christmas Eve in 1223 in Greccio, Francis staged the Nativity in a cave. In his biography, the Vita Prima, Thomas of Celano records that, as he prayed, Francis took up the infant Jesus who seemed to come alive in his arms. It has been happening in every Christian heart and home ever since. But at a price.
The price to be paid for filleting the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke to the dimensions of our Crib is to rob each of its individual voice. It is to create our story by destroying the integrity of their stories. It is to turn their poetry into our prose. In short, it is to corrupt the very word of God, for it creates a Christmas exclusively for children, a Christmas devoid of the Cross, reeking of sentimentality and pious illusion. The price paid corrupts the purposes for which Matthew and Luke composed their stories. They were not writing a history of the infant Jesus. Each in his own way was constructing a prologue, an overture, to the Jesus who would emerge in their pages. In their sure and certain faith in the resurrection of Jesus, they sought to sustain in faith men and women who, like them, saw in the person of Jesus the human face of God. They were not writing a history story; rather, they travelled beyond history into realms of faith, and contemplation, and prayer. To travel with them, we must ask, not only who Jesus was, but, more demandingly, who Jesus is.
To clarify what our four Gospels are, and how we ought to read them, we will make two excursions. First, we will make our way through the Infancy Presentation of Saint Matthew, trying to listen to what he has to say, and trying to appreciate the way he says it. We will allow him to have his say, leaving aside, painfully perhaps, our cherished opinions and unsuspected prejudices. Secondly, we will journey through Saint Luke's Infancy Presentation, in the knowledge of what we have learned from Saint Matthew, and keenly aware that Luke is telling a very different and contradictory story. Out of our confusion will grow an understanding of what Gospels are. If we learn to read Gospels aright, we will be well on the way to learning who Jesus was and who he is.
We are safe with our Crib. Shepherds hobnob with three crowned kings, often one black, one brown, and one white. The ox and the ass are house-trained and the straw in the manger never smells. Elderly Joseph keeps well back. Mary wears a white frock and a blue veil.
Christians, for the most part, find Luke much more congenial than Matthew. Luke's presentation of the infancy story has no murderous king, no dead babies, and no flight into the desert. The keynote is joy and we feel that's the way it must have been. If we think about it at all, we are prepared to admit that, from the perspective of sober history and elementary astronomy, Matthew's star may be no more than an inner light, guiding the magi and nudging them whenever they stray. But we are loath to concede much else to the historical junkyard. Certainly, we will not yield our manger, our shepherds, the swaddling clothes, the Angel Gabriel nor the heavenly choir. Yet, in our tenacity to hold in the grasp of history what we have always believed (but never examined), we may well miss what Luke strove to teach and be left with no more than a sentimental story, lovely for the children, of course, but hardly worth the cost of being a Christian.
If we outline at the amazing design of Luke's drama, what he intended to convey will become clear. What we have are five short scenes, all linked together, and all hinging on the central scene that gives meaning to the other four. This, as I see it, was his plan:
SCENE 1: THE ANNUNCIATION TO THE OLD PRIEST
SCENE 2: THE ANNUNCIATION TO THE UNMARRIED MARY
SCENE 3: THE MEETING OF THE MOTHERS
SCENE 4: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN JOHN WAS BORN
SCENE 5: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN JESUS WAS BORN
If my understanding is correct, the pivotal drama is the meeting of the two mothers. It is the Visitation that explains the other dramas. It supplies the key to the meaning of the whole. In order to understand what Luke is about in his Infancy Presentation, we will do well to begin with Mary's visit to her older and pregnant cousin.
For the geographically minded, it is about seventy-two miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and tradition places the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth in a village close by. It is difficult to imagine a pregnant thirteen or fourteen year old girl making her way alone through the dangerous Jordan Valley and the even more treacherous Judaean hills. Luke, like Matthew, forever interested in the ways of God, does not tarry over our concerns. Mary makes her way, as Jesus will make his way to Jerusalem and his death (9:51; 13:22; 22:22), under divine impetus. This much we can gather by Abraham's running, making haste, and making ready quickly, which characterise his encounters with God (Genesis 18:1-8). When salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus, he is advised to make haste in order to receive his guest (Luke 19:1-10). Simple words, such as 'arose,' 'went,' 'with haste,' indicate Mary's obedience to God's will, for Luke is telling his story in the language used in the tales of great holy ones of the past.
The angel Gabriel did not greet old Zachariah but he did greet Mary: Greetings, O favoured one, the LORD is with you! (1:28), an early and cautionary indication that, great though he is, John is not Jesus. Mary, in her turn, greets Elizabeth, a greeting that causes the baby in the old woman’s womb to leap about. So important is this leaping for joy that it is mentioned twice. Keep it in mind.
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit has already been promised to Elizabeth's baby, whose birth will be a cause of joy and gladness to many who will come to listen to him and to be baptised by him. Gabriel's words had revealed as much to the father, the venerable Zachariah:
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.
The Holy Spirit, identified as the power of the Most High, had already overshadowed Mary with the mantle of God's creative power, and, consequently, the child to be born will be called holy, Son of God (1:35). It is the presence of this child in the young girl's womb and the identity of the child that are Luke's concerns in the meeting of the two mothers.
Twice we are told that Elizabeth's child jumped in her womb, a movement Elizabeth interprets as leaping for joy (just as true disciples will rejoice and jump for joy - see Luke 6:23). With a loud cry (the sign of a prophet's voice), she proclaims that Mary is blessed by God, to a superlative (but not unique) degree. God's blessing, God's protective care, accomplishes and accompanies the call to motherhood given to Mary. The blessing, therefore, is centred on the fruit of your womb; on account of her child, Mary is blessed as great women of old have been blessed. Elizabeth's next words to Mary repay careful scrutiny.
Elizabeth makes three statements:
How is it with me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For, behold, as the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the
unborn child in my womb leapt for joy.
And blessed is the one who believed that the word uttered by the
LORD would [come to] fulfillment.
To grasp what Luke is about here, we must go back in time to the days of David the King.
A Royal Procession
After the tempestuous reign of King Saul, David was anointed king at Hebron by all the elders of the tribes of Israel. For political, military, and economic reasons, David wanted to centralise his power and, accordingly, he needed a capital city to which all would give allegiance. For reasons similar to the establishment of Washington, D.C. and Canberra, Australia, he sought a city outside the tribal confederation. He captured the non-Israelite city of Jerusalem and made it his capital. It was his private city. That is why it is called it the city of David (Second Book of Samuel 5:1-10).
David wanted to bind the religious aspirations of the tribes to Jerusalem. To this end, he wished to build a central temple in his city (his dalliance with Bathsheba thwarted this hope - Second Book of Samuel 11:1-27). His first move was to bring to Jerusalem the Ark of the Covenant, the chest of acacia wood that contained the stone slabs on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The Ark was the place where God's name dwelt, that is, it was the locus of God's Presence among his people and functioned as a palladium or shield carried into battle (Book of Numbers 10:35-36).
The Ark of the Covenant was captured by enemies, re-captured, and lodged for safety in a place called Baalejudah (later, Keriath-Jearim), not far away from Bethlehem. David decided that it should be brought to his city and he organised a huge procession (think Corpus Christi here):
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baalejudah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.
And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before theLORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
Second Book of Samuel, 6:1-5
Disaster struck the exuberant procession. When the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, Uzzah steadied the Ark with his hand, but God's anger struck him down. The story portrays the power and danger that ancient peoples associated with their holy objects and with the divine powers that inhabited them. The same Ark of God had brought plague and pestilence upon the Philistines when they captured it in battle (First Book of Samuel, chapters 5 and 6). David, frightened because the LORD had burst forth against Uzzah, called off the procession. This is what the Bible says at this point:
And David was frightened of God that day, and he said,
How is it with me that the ark of the LORD should come to me?
Second Book of Samuel 6:9
David lodged the Ark of God with a friend, where it remained for three months. The God of the Ark showered blessings on his friend's household and David saw this as a sign to recommence the procession to Jerusalem with great rejoicing. The King was leaping and dancing before the LORD, so energetically that his wife Michal despised him in her heart for making a show of himself. Unlike Mary, unlike Elizabeth, Michal had no child to the day of her death, - perhaps the saddest sentence in the Bible.
Who is in the Ark?
Mary's hymn explains how it is that Elizabeth can call her the mother of my Lord. She looks beyond the immediate praise of Elizabeth to all generations who will bless what has been done in her, will rejoice in what God is about. Mary's whole being ('my soul' = 'I') marvels at and rejoices in God who is my Saviour. This Saviour God has done great things to her but the great things are not exclusively for her: great things have been done by mighty God to all generations, to the whole of humanity. The power of God is revealed to the world, not as destructive, avenging power, but as mercy: the God of Israel is the Saviour God (Isaiah 45:15). Limitless mercy is divine power: this is how Mary sees God as Saviour. Remembering the blessings showered on Abraham in the past conjures up for Mary a future when the blessing of mercy will be showered on all wherever and whenever they may be.
Of course, the surprising thing is that it is Jesus who is Saviour; the baby who is swaddled in cloths is the anointed/appointed Saviour and Lord. All that Mary sings of in her song comes to earth in the child in her womb. What must be said of God must be said of the child. That is what the Visitation reveals and that it why it is the scene which explains all of the scenes in Luke’s drama.
Where is God to be found?
Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. At first sight, this would appear to be nonsense. The city of David was and is Jerusalem. True, David was the son of a shepherd-farmer of Bethlehem, but, as we have seen, Jerusalem was the personal property of David because he captured it and made it his capital. So why does Luke write this?:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Another question. Why does Luke call attention to the fact that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, in the city of David, during the reign of Emperor Augustus? Notice, too, what the shepherds will find there: for to you is born TODAY in the city of David a SAVIOUR, who is MESSIAH LORD, a cause of GLORY TO GOD and PEACE on earth among its peoples with whom God is pleased:
And the angel said [to the shepherds]: 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I am ‘gospelling’ you with great joy, which will be for all the people, because today is born for you in the city of David a saviour, who is Messiah Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby swaddled in cloths and lying in a manger.'
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth, goodwill to all people.
A little history will help to clarify what Luke is about. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., the Roman Empire descended into the chaos of civil war and it was not until 29 B.C. that the Augustus restored peace. Grateful citizens of the city of Rome erected an altar on which was inscribed the famous legend, Ars Pacis Augustae, the Altar of the Peace of Augustus. The Emperor's birthday was celebrated as the day of the birth of 'The Saviour of the World.' Indeed, there is a famous inscription commemorating the birth of Augustus. It reads, "The birthday of the god [= Augustus] has marked the beginning of the gospel for the whole world.' (Priene Inscription of Augustus).
Not Augustus! Not in Caesar's Rome! Not the Peace of Augustus! Not an imperial saviour! It is Jesus! It is in the city of David, not the city of Rome! It is the peace of Christ! Here you will find God's true Saviour, the true Messiah, the true Lord! This is the true good news, true gospel! Don't rely on here-today-gone-tomorrow peace! God's angels sing that the Pax Christi, the Peace of Christ, is God's peace to all peoples forever. God-in-Christ, our true Lord, is to be found, not on an altar in Rome, but in a manger in Bethlehem! Glory to God in the highest heaven!
What Luke has done is to move the imperial agenda and its propaganda from Rome to Bethlehem. Not only that, he has decided that the presence of God on earth is not now to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in the child in the manger, the child in the new city of David, to whom God has given 'the throne of his father David,' and whose reign, unlike that of David or Augustus, will have no end (Luke 1:3-33).
There are many stories in Luke's Gospel that emphasise his point that, where Jesus is present, God is there. In the story of the little man from Jericho (Luke 19:1-10), Jesus calls him out of the tree to tell him that Today, salvation has come to this house. Where Jesus is, there is God's salvation. The 'today' of Jesus is the 'today' of God: a new time has arrived in the world, the time of Jesus, the time of God, eternal time.
The story of the ten people with leprosy who came to Jesus begging for mercy makes the point with crystal clarity (Luke 17:19).
Ten lepers cry to Jesus for help. They are commanded to go to their priest as to a public health officer. All are cleansed. One man, a Samaritan, making his way to his priest (not to Jerusalem but to the city of Samaria), on discovering that he has been made clean, returns to Jesus, falls to the ground in worship before Jesus, and gives praise to God. The comments of Jesus explain the point:
Were not ten made clean? Where are the nine? Was no one found give praise to God, except this foreigner?
One person came back to Jesus to give praise to God. But why, oh why, should anyone go to Jesus to give praise to God? Why not go to the Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem? And, why not pray to God for God's mercy in the first place? Because in the new 'Today' of St. Luke, to seek for God's mercy, one must go to Jesus. In the new 'Today,' to praise God, one must fall at the feet of Jesus of Nazareth. That is the kind of faith the Samaritan leper had. Therefore, to him is given what is beyond price. Ten people are cured; only one experiences that wholeness which comes from being where God is to be found: Rise, go on your way; your faith has saved you.
The Visitation Revisited
Let us retrace our steps. Mary came to the hill country of Judah, the very region where the Ark of the God was lodged in the house of David's friend. When Mary greeted her kinswoman, the child in her womb leapt and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (David, too, was filled with God's Holy Spirit). Filled with the Spirit, she recognised the blessing showered on Mary, as God's presence in the Ark had showered blessings on David's friend and all his household. The words that David uttered long ago in fear and reverence before the very presence of God are echoed by Elizabeth as she proclaimed to the world in a loud cry:
Blessed are you among women,
and the fruit of your womb is blessed!
And how is this with me
that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
when the sound of your greeting came to my ear
the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
As David danced and made merry before the LORD, so the baby, a baby who was filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15), leapt in joyous recognition of the presence of the Lord in his mother's house. According to the First Book of Chronicles, in its account of the procession of the Ark to the city of David, the celebrations were completed by a theologically rich psalm of thanksgiving composed for the occasion:
O give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples…
O God of our salvation,
and gather and save us
from among the nations,
that we may give thanks
to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.
First Book of Chronicles 16:8-36
The Holy Spirit enlightening Elizabeth pinpoints the root of Mary's blessedness: she believed the word spoken to her from the LORD God. It comes as no surprise that Mary sings an intuitive psalm of thanksgiving, as David commanded a equally instructive song from his choirmaster. One ought to bear in mind, too, that the blessing Elizabeth pronounced upon Mary (Blessed are you among women…) is remarkably similar to that pronounced on Judith:
you are blessed by the Most High God,
above all women on earth…
Judith responded, as Mary does in the Magnificat, with a rousing song. And it comes as no surprise that the Ark of God was in the house of David's blessed friend for three months. Mary remained in Elizabeth's house for three months before returning to her home in Nazareth.
What is happening in Luke's story is plain enough. He has used an old story to tell a new story. In his first little scene, Zachariah is told that his child will be a source of joy and gladness for he will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be a prophet of God and prepare people for the coming of the Lord Jesus (Gospel of Luke 1:14-17). In the second scene, the angel of the LORD discloses to Mary that her child will be greater still. For he will be, not a prophet, but Son of the Most High; he will receive the throne of his ancestor David, he will reign over the house of Israel, and his kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:32-34).
In the central scene, the one that provides the key to the others, all is revealed. The presence of God has come into the world, showering blessings. This son of Mary is no less than, as Matthew put it, God-with-us, as sure as the Presence of God dwelt in the Ark which David brought to his city with much leaping and dancing in joy and gladness. The baby John, in the womb of Elizabeth, recognises and identifies where God is now to be found in our world.
To be in the presence of the infant in Mary's womb is to be where the Lord is. Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, the Gate of Heaven, the Morning Star. In Luke's story, John the Baptist never meets Jesus. His moment of proclamation, his celebration of the one to come, is accomplished by leaping and dancing for joy in his mother's womb.
What we learn in the visitation carries forward into the third scene, the birth on John and the hymn that tells of his place in the divine scheme of things. The final scene, enacted by those around the manger, dramatise who it is that Elizabeth recognised as Lord and what God's purposes were/are in the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a true Christmas.
1. Luke's account of the events surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus has very little in common with the account given to us by St. Matthew. It is well-nigh impossible to iron out the differences between them or to explain, from the point of view of the historian, how two accounts of the same event could be so irreconcilable one with the other.
2. It is clear that we can have no historical certainty about the details which Luke presents. For example, the hymns which enrich his text were clearly not composed by the people to whom Luke attributes them: Mary did not sing the Magnificat in an ex tempore outpouring of joy; Zechariah did not compose the Benedictus; Simeon did not compose the Nunc Dimittis. Most scholars are agreed that Luke incorporated hymns that were current in Jewish Christian circles into the body of his text.
3. If Luke's account differs irreconcilably from that of Matthew's, his methods do not. He has searched the Scriptures and he has seized on what he found there to help him explain the meaning of Jesus and the significance for humanity of his presence and mission on earth.
If God's will is to be known, it will be found in God’s holy words, as St. Francis named his Holy Bible. If we absorb the profound revelation of who and why Jesus is, then loosing our imagination as we look at the crib will be a profitable and prayerful experience. It is a commonplace to say these days that Christmas is for kids. Why not? We have two babies, one teenage pregnancy, and plenty of angels. But the crib is more that a child’s delight.
St. Francis made the first crib in the wood outside Greecio in 1223. He made it in order to speak to minds that could not read the words, to folk who gathered around altars that spoke in Latin. But Francis wanted to bring the story home, to bring God home, as Luke intended. What Francis dramatised for those who stood among the trees was the most famous homily ever preached:
Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you, that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it …
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon