A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday/Feastday Readings)
- Midnight Mass. The Humanity of Christ
First Reading (Isaiah 9:1-7). A Son is given to us. The historical background to this reading seems to have been the events of 732 BC when the Assyrian armies completely destroyed the northern part of the northern kingdom of Israel and incorporated it into the Assyrian empire, with consequent heavy taxation and imposition of pagan gods. Assyria would completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel with the capture and destruction of Samaria in 723/721 BC. This setting is given in the verse that precedes the present text in the Bible. “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” For the prophet Isaiah, this for Jerusalem and Judah was a period of deep darkness. In prophetic vision Isaiah sees new life for God’s people, with their fortunes reversed. They will rejoice as was the custom at harvest time, and of victors after war. The victory to be worked for them by God will be like that well-known one by Gideon in Israel’s ancient past against the invading Midianites (Midian); see Judges 7:15-25. It was customary to burn captured cities; the fire on this occasion, however, will be of war boots and garments blood-stained in war. The reason for the change is the birth of a child, seen as having already happened (possibly the future king Hezekiah, who came to the throne possibly in 716 BC), or a future event seen in prophetic vision as having taken place. The child-king, in any event, is heir to the throne of David, and his reign is viewed as one of justice and righteousness. This heir to David’s throne is given grandiose titles. These may represent titles used in a royal enthronement ceremony in Judah, with ancient Egyptian models (hence the difficulty in understanding the exact connotation of some of them). In fact, it is possible that the birth intended in the passage may be a ‘regnal’ birth to the throne, rather than an actual physical birth.
In any event Isaiah’s vision of the future Davidic king, and the reversal of circumstances, was not fulfilled in his own time, and like many others remained as a vision of the future. It is aptly read at the midnight nativity Mass. The opening section is chosen by Matthew (Mat 4:12-17) to introduce Jesus’ preaching of the advent of the kingdom of God in Galilee. The vision continues to be an inspiration for all Christians to work for the realisation of Isaiah’s message in personal, public and political life – the kingdom of Christ is one of peace, justice and hope.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 95). Today a saviour has been born for us; he is Christ the Lord.
Second Reading (Titus 2:11-14). God’s grace has been revealed to the whole human race.The epistle to Titus is one of three letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) known as Pastoral Letters. Although in the name of Paul they more probably represent an extension of his teaching to later situations than coming directly from Paul himself. They seem to represent a developed Christian community, with bishops and deacons in charge, possibly from the later first century. Christians have attained an identity as a group in the Greco-Roman world and are exhorted to live lives that will win respect in this world, but lives faithful to the Christian message and the centrality of Christ. Today’s text, and the other Pastoral Letters, use inclusive language: Christ has died for all. God’s grace has been made manifest in the first coming of Christ (including his birth and life), and Christians are exhorted to let that manifestation remind them of the central Christian message of leading true Christian lives. Christ died to set us free for this. Our life here below is between two comings of Christ, the first at his birth and life, the second at his second coming, called “the Appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour Christ Jesus”. This expression “great God and saviour Jesus Christ” seems to refer to Christ as God, although a possible alternative rendering might be: “of our great God and of our saviour Christ Jesus”.
Gospel (Luke 2:1-14). Today a saviour has been born to us. (For Luke’s setting of the text see “Infancy Narratives” no. 2, in the section “Dialogue”, for the Sunday Readings, Second Sunday of Advent, December 9 2012.). A central message of the passage read today is the opening of heaven to earth. At Jesus’ baptism the heavens were opened (Mat 3:16-19) and a voice came from heaven declaring that Jesus was God’s divine Son. Similarly at the Transfiguration ((Mat 17:5). The voice of the angels at his birth, colourfully presented by Luke, carries the same message.
- Christmas Day Mass. The Divinity of Christ
First Reading (Isaiah 52:7-10). All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. This is a text from the work commonly referred to in recent times as “Second Isaiah” or the Book of Consolation (Isaiah chapters 40-55), from which many of the Advent Sunday readings are taken. Jerusalem is still regarded as in ruins, with little hope for the future. A prophetic voice declares beautiful the feet bringing the good news of peace, welfare, happiness, to the ruined city, declaring to her “Your God reigns, is king”, as many of the psalms of the kingship of God proclaim (Psalms 47; 93; 96-99), which the Aramaic translation (Targum), possibly known in New Testament times, paraphrases as: “The kingdom of your God is revealed”. Before the destruction of the Temple (in 586 BC) the glory of God, enthroned over the cherubim, was believed to have abandoned the Temple and city (see Ezekiel 8-11). Now the watchmen over the ruined walls of Jerusalem are represented as seeing the Lord return to the city (Zion). All this calls for rejoicing. This great act of redemption (of Jerusalem) is believed to be seen as God’s salvation (saving acts) to the ends of the earth.
Responsorial psalm (Psalm 970. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Second Reading (Hebrews 1:1-6). God has spoken to us through his Son.This reading is chosen to go with the Gospel reading, on the divine nature of Christ. It is not easy ascertain the date or place of composition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whether before or after 70 AD. The opening section, read today, speaks of Christ’s divine status and role in the history of redemption. He is God’s final revelation “in the last days”. He is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Greek hypostasis, “his underlying nature”; Latin: substantia). (These texts are taken up and echoed in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, light from light, consubstantial [of the same substance] to the Father, through whom [Christ] all things were made”.) As God’s exact representation he reveals “what it is that makes God to be God”. The text goes on to speak of Christ as mediator, representing God to humanity, as descending, and on earth destroying the defilement of sin. Then by ascending to heaven and at the right hand of the Father, as high priest he continually makes intercession for us. The Epistle highlights Christ’s supremacy over angels, possibly to counter a cult of angels among the letter’s recipients.
Gospel (John 1:1-18). See under “Dialogue” below.
Reflections. Midnight Mass. The Humanity of Christ
Christmas Day Mass. The Divinity of Christ
- The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day:
Jesus Son of God. Development of belief in the divinity of Christ/
John 16:12-13 has Jesus tell his disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak of his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked his followers: “Who do people say that I am?”, and “Who do you say that I am?” Early Christian belief was that at the resurrection and ascension the Father had exalted Christ and given him a name that is above every name, that is “Lord”, which name means the exalted Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, and sending his Spirit on the Church. Reflection on the relationship of Christ to God the Father, and within strict Jewish monotheism, went on in the early Church. By the later first century Jesus was worshipped as God, a belief clearly expressed in John’s Gospel, for instance John 10:20: “I and the Father are one”.
Christmas Day Mass, Gospel (John 1:1-18). John’s gospel begins and ends with profession of faith in the divinity of Christ: “The Word was God” (John 1:1). Thomas professes the same to Christ: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). John goes further, with profession of faith in the eternal existence of Christ as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The Epistle to the Hebrews (a text read on Christmas Day Mass) also stresses the special relation of Christ to God. He is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Greek: hypostasis, substantia, substance)” (Heb 1:3). The Epistle even refers to Christ as “God” (Heb 1:8-9).
A question still awaiting clarification was the nature of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father: was it ontological, metaphysical, or metaphorical? Questions on the matter led to a crisis with the heresy of Arianism (named from it author Arius (c. 250-c. 336) which denied the true divinity of Christ, maintaining that the Son of God was not eternal but was created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world, and that therefore he was not God by nature, but that his dignity as Son of God was given to him by the Father on account of his foreseen righteousness. This doctrine continued to spread and agitate the Church (especially in the East). Anxious to bring peace, the first Ecumenical Council defined Church belief on the issue (in the Nicene Creed), in 325 (further refined and developed by the First Council of Constantinople in 381): “I (We) believe in God … and in Jesus Christ … God of God, … begotten not made, consubstantial (=of the same substance) with the Father through whom all things were made”. Breaking with tradition, the Council made use of a philosophical term “consubstantial” to make its teaching clear.
Already in the fourth century objections were raised at the use of philosophical language to express religious truths. There have been similar objections in our own day, with regard to the literal translation of the Latin consubstantialis of the Nicene Creed. The main objection was that “consubstantial” is not a word in current use; people do not understand it. With regard to this one may note that the same holds for the Latin and Greek words in question. They were never in current use, but chosen by reason of the truth being asserted.
The doctrine expressed by this word “consubstantial “is a deep mystery, to be accepted in faith. There have been recurrent returns of Arianism in various forms throughout history, particularly where there is no strong central religious authority. This was true at the Reformation period in the sixteenth century and among some learned scientists and literary persons in the eighteenth. In cases of such crisis it is good to recall the formulation of Nicaea and Constantinople