The readings take us from Advent back to Ordinary Time
By Father Joseph Brando
As we all know, The East Tennessee Catholic has changed its format over the years. This has especially affected this column, changing it from a biweekly format to a monthly and now to a bimonthly column. Since this column was begun to highlight the Scripture readings used at the Sunday Liturgy, changing the number of issues changes the column’s perspective.
Focusing on two Gospels per column is radically different from analyzing two months’ worth of Scripture readings in multi-leveled interaction with each other. Then, you add in that many Old Testament readings. Plus you add that many or more New Testament passages. That completely changes the object of the column. The difference has nothing to do with the assignment’s difficulty; it has everything to do with perspective.
Years ago, you would have read this column to prepare yourself for the next Sunday’s Mass. This would be accomplished by means of an analysis of its assigned Scripture readings. Now, you should read this column as a tool to orient your mind to the passage of the liturgical seasons and apply the lessons proclaimed in biblical times to what is happening in our present-day world. We can accomplish this by searching for the message of each of the Scripture readings assigned over a rather lengthy amount of time. If we do this well, we will learn to discern the deeper meaning the writers of the biblical passages want us to learn. They will teach us how to see the world as God sees it.
That is what we’re doing now. In the previous column, we concluded a treatment of Ordinary Time first as it led us from the glory of Pentecost, seeing the world as filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We, then, take that vision into the warmth of the summer months. The Gospels of Ordinary Time put us in the midst of Jesus’ disciples being taught about the Kingdom of God. Then we transition into Advent. What this column is attempting to do now is get us in the mentality for Advent and Christmas, and then, through Epiphany and leave us off back in Ordinary Time coming close to Lent. Relax and enjoy a trip through time. We’re not just passing from 2017 to 2018. While we’re entering into a new year, we are also going back to the time of Jesus and even further back to undo the effects of original sin.
Our trip takes off on Dec. 3, which is the first day of the new Church year. The message for this Advent reminds us that things on earth are both good and bad at the same time. The first reading of Advent is from Isaiah. There, he asks why we humans wander in our sinfulness. Yet, even with our faults, you, Lord, are our father and we are the work of your hands. There is hope. With this introduction, hope becomes the main theme of Advent. It should be the theme of our lives.
Reading the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, you’d think there were no problems among the recipients of that community. If you continued reading that letter, you’d see many. The truth is just like Isaiah saw it. Paul recognized the problem as pride. The remedy he recommended to the Corinthians was a large dose of the virtue of love.
Jesus’ response to the problem of evil in this world can be found in what seems to be a standard part of His message, namely the parable. A rich man goes away on a long trip and divides his fortune among his servants. From other Gospel messages there’s always one who messes up. In this Gospel from Mark, the rich man (it could also be a king or an owner) tells his employees what they should do. They should watch and be faithful. There it is in the first Mass of the new liturgical year. Faith, hope, and charity form the answer to the problem of evil. They will lead us to true happiness for the entire year and, indeed, for the rest of our lives.
Advent wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Mary’s role in the history of salvation. On the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, in the first reading, Adam and Eve offer excuses for their disobeying God’s command. Mary doesn’t need an excuse. She was holy and without blemish. We can follow her example. Through devotion to Mary we can also experience Mary’s love for her Son.
We return to the problem of evil on the second Sunday of Advent. Isaiah prophesies that God will come in power to expiate the sins of Israel. Peter writes that the Lord is not delaying. He goes further to say that the end is coming
Isaiah returns for the third time on the third Sunday of Advent. He goes on to say that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” His answer to the problem is that God is already here with us. Paul admonishes us not to quench the Spirit. Rather we are to cooperate with “the God of peace to become perfectly holy.”
The last Sunday of Advent presents David as the link to tie us up with God being with us. David is promised that the Lord who was with him in all his conquests will come as a Son of David. “I will raise up your heir after you…and I will make his kingdom firm.” That prophesy explains why Joseph made great haste to get to Bethlehem. The true Messiah must have a father who is a “son of David” and be born in Bethlehem. Thus, Paul can write to the Romans in the second reading that Jesus Christ is revealed as God.
The ultimate word that God has become man was announced in Luke’s Gospel by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Rejoice, God is here.
If we have done our duty this Advent and come to Christmas with a heart that has been uplifted by faith, hope, and love, and have filled our heart with joy — that is our goal on Christmas day.
There are four different Liturgies of the Word that can be employed on Christmas. Those are for: the vigil, Christmas night, Christmas dawn, and Christmas day. Piecing them together can result in developing a beautiful spiritual theology of the Incarnation that will benefit our souls with knowledge and joy.
After the Church made ample use of Isaiah, quoting from his book three of the four Sundays in Advent, of the four Masses on Christmas Isaiah is read all four times. At the vigil Mass, Isaiah praises Jerusalem for being vindicated. The city whose citizens were carried away to (presumably) a life of slavery is now a glorious crown as they return home alive with the joy of a victorious people. No longer slaves, they are now brides of God, and “so shall your God rejoice in you.” The vigil Mass also features Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Antioch. It highlights the dynasty of David and that through David’s descendants the Savior has come to Israel. The Gospel consists of Matthew’s genealogy from David to Joseph.
The Mass during the night contains the prophecy of Jesus’ birth: “a child is born to us, a son is given us; they name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne and over his kingdom…both now and forever.”
The New Testament reading is from Paul’s letter to Titus. He writes that the grace of God has appeared and is working to help us reject godless ways and to live devoutly. So, God was always working for us and, now, is stronger than ever, “cleansing for himself a people as his own eager to do what is good.” That is us.
The Gospel tells the background story of Christmas beginning with the decree from Caesar until the coming of the shepherds. It ends with the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest.”
The Mass at dawn begins with Isaiah prophesying that God will proclaim to the people of Zion they are holy and redeemed. Then, it quotes Paul writing to Titus informing us that such redemption comes to us by the mercy of God. We are justified by His grace. What a cause for joy!
The Liturgy of Christmas concludes with Mass during the day. Isaiah encourages us to end it appropriately. “Break out together in song.” “In that way the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.” Notice the proper response to God’s presence is song and not shouts.
The final New Testament readings on Christmas are from the Letter to the Hebrews and the beginning of John’s Gospel. Both have to do with God speaking to us. This leads us to conclude that one of the greatest Christmas gifts that God gives us is the ability to listen to God. The Letter to the Hebrews notes the superiority of our communication with God. We cannot waste this opportunity. The Gospel of John has a real Gospel message at the end of his discourse on Word, light, and life. “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.”
That is the source of Christmas joy: We can be born of God.
Perhaps, the most critical time for a family to take advantage of the Sunday liturgies is in the month of January. It could be a great time to re-introduce regular attendance at Sunday Mass to family members who got a shot-in-the-arm boost attending the Christmas Mass. You could tell them that Christmas season isn’t over. Very much part of the Christmas celebration is the Octave Day of Christmas. That is the eighth day after a feast when all the enjoyment over the past seven days reaches a happy conclusion. This year that day is now celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas as the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Dedicate that day to remembering and relating the joys each family member experienced during Christmas week.
The Scripture passages for the Mass make a good reading list for family conversation. The Old Testament reading is from Sirach (a wise teacher in Israel). It’ll get you started conversing on parent-child relationships. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians starts us off with a list of virtues we all need to improve on. Be careful. Such a discussion demands you bring a good sense of humor with you.
The last reading this day finishes the Christmas narrative. The wise men go back home, King Herod plans to kill the baby Jesus, and Joseph takes his family to Egypt. There’s plenty of interesting conversation at hand to keep family time alive a long time.
Jan. 1 is not a day when we have an obligation to attend Mass as it usually is. It still is, however, a solemn day in honor of Mary, the Mother of God. The Scripture readings are great for a summary of what really happened over Christmas.
The first reading has a family blessing you may want to use in your home. The New Testament reading presents the final report of the effect of Christmas on families and their prayer life. The Gospel, from Luke, describes life in the Holy Family for the first eight days after Jesus’ birth. Your family may not have been much different.
On Jan. 7 we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. It is the traditional ending of the Christmas season. The next Sunday returns us to Ordinary Time. So, on the week of Epiphany we should meditate on Christmas as if it were the “rearview mirror” of feasts. Perhaps, all in your home could gather and look backward and reflect on all the good things that happened both on this recently concluded Christmas as well as the first Christmas in Bethlehem. How would you think Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would answer the question, “What was your Christmas like?”
After Epiphany, the Church goes back to Ordinary Time until the season of Lent arrives on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14. For us in the Diocese of Knoxville, we have a feast to celebrate, namely the dedication of our new cathedral. So, in the next edition of The East Tennessee Catholic we’ll be putting that great milestone for our diocese under the penetrating light of the Scriptures of the season. Be sure to read us then.
Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.