December 19th Christmas Day Sunday Dec 25th 2011(Midnight Mass & Mass during the Day)
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday/Feastday Readings)
1. Midnight Mass. The Humanity of Christ
First Reading (Isaiah 9:2-7). 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.” This for the prophet Isaiah, 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, of by 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 in reality as having already happened (possibly the future king Hezekiah, who came to the throne possibly in 716 BC), or seen in prophetic vision as having taken place. The child-king, in any event is heir to the throne of David, and his reign viewed as one of justice and righteousness. This heir to David’s throne is given grandiose titles. These may represent titles used in an enthronement ceremony, with ancient Egyptian models (hence the difficulty in understanding the exact connotation of some of then. In fact, it is possible that the birth intended in the passage may be a ‘regnal’ birth to t he 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 may others remained as a future vision. It is aptly read at the midnight nativity Mass. The opening section are chosen by Matthew (Mat 4:12-17) to introduce Jesus’ preaching of 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 the personal, public and political life – the kingdom of Christ is one of pace, justice and hope.
Second Reading (Titus 2:11-14). The epistle to Titus is one of three (`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 directly from 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 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 (birth and life) and Christians are exhorted to let to let that manifestation (at his birth included) remind the 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” – which seem 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). For Luke’s setting of the text see below in B. 2 under “Infancy Narratives”. A central message of the passage 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.
2. Christmas Day Mass. The Divinity of Christ
First Reading (Isaiah 52:7-10). A further text from the work commonly in recent times referred to as “Second Isaiah”. from which many of the Advent Sunday readings are taken. Jerusalem is still regarded as in ruins, with little hopes 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.
Second Reading (Hebrews 1:1-6). 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 dive status and role in the history of redemption. He is God’s final revelation “in the last days”. Next we are told about his divine status. 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 tp speak of Christ as mediator, representing God to humanity, as descending, and on earth destroying the defilement of sin; next by ascending to heaven and at the right hand of the Father, where as high priest he continually makes intercession for us. Possibly to counter a cult of angels among the letter’s recipients the Epistle highlights Christ’s supremacy over angels.
Gospel (John 1:1-18). See below under B. 5, “The Christ of faith”.
B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: ). Formation of the gospel tradition; 2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; 3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition; 4). Jesus of History and (5) the Christ of faith
Christmastime is a period of devotion: birth at Bethlehem, on the occasion of a census under Quirinius (Luke’s gospel), the crib, angels heard on high, the Magi, and so forth. It is also a time when in some quarters and media questions are raised, and programmes presented, about the historical reality, or otherwise, of event presented in the Infancy narratives of Matthew chapters 1-2 and Luke 1-2, narratives absent from Mark’s gospel. These Infancy Narratives at the beginning of these two gospels contrast with the theological presentation of Jesus as the Word become flesh in the prologue of John’s gospel, read on Christmas Day Mass. This presents and opportunity of uniting devotion with a critical understanding of the formation of the gospel tradition and the development in the early Church of an understanding of Jesus’ relation to God the Father. This we can do in five sections: 1). Formation of the gospel tradition; 2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; 3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition; 4). Jesus of History and (5) the Christ of faith.
1). Formation of the gospel tradition. All four gospels begin the account of Jesus’ public ministry with an account of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of God, preached, worked miracles. consorted with the marginalized, gathered disciples about him, and chose from among them some (generally called apostles) to whom he transmitted his mission and powers, was crucified in Jerusalem and appeared to followers after his resurrection. We have no evidence that Jesus wrote anything, or gave any direction or command to his followers that they write an account of his work and mission. After Jesus’ ascension, the early church in Jerusalem were conscious that they were to continue to proclaim what Jesus said and did, and this during his public life to his ascension, from the baptism of John the Baptist onwards. This appears clear from Peter’s words to elect someone to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22): “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was take up from us – one of these must become witness with us to his resurrection”. The early preaching of the gospel would not have included any account of his birth, infancy or life before the baptism of John. The saying and deeds of Jesus would have been remembered and transmitted by the early church, but would also have been retold in a manner to make them relevant to new situations. Also during this period the relationship of Jesus to the Father, and his role as redeemer and mediator would have developed and would have been partly written in to the ongoing formation of the gospel tradition, the latest stage of which is probably in the Fourth Gospel (John). The plan of the earliest gospel, Mark, probably follows that of the early preaching, beginning with the baptism of John, and without any Infancy Narrative. In part Mark as editor gives a framework, sometimes (for instance lasts days of Jesus) a chronological framework to his gospel and sections of it, which ,may be simply editorial rather than strictly historical.
2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke . The Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are traditions and compositions independent of that of the central gospel tradition. What actual tradition stands behind them, and how much they are rather free theological, allegorical compositions, or such like, is not easy to determine. It may be that traditions about Christ’s birth and infancy were handed down within his family circles (the brothers and sisters of Jesus, for example). There is very little in common between the narratives of Matthew and Luke, apart from birth at Bethlehem, and the virginal conception (without a human father) of Jesus, clear in Matthew (Mat 1:18-24) and very probable in Luke (Luke 1:26-38, especially 1:35). Matthew is interested in showing the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy at Christ’s conception, birth and infancy, and already at his birth acknowledge of his status as king of the Jews by the (pagan) magi.
Luke’s central message (in passages read on Christmas night, dawn Mass Christmas Day) is the significance of Christ’sfollowers,and for all of the birth of the infant Jesus: heaven open (so to speak) as at Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration, the message of peace and joy of the eventm the events of the birth, the words of the shepherds as belonging to the mystery that was Christ already at his birth, truths to be reflected on to arrive at a deeper knowledge of their significance. Even Mary, Jesus’ mother, the model of faith for Luke, did not quite grasp them, but pondered them in her heart. The framework within which Luke set the birth of Christ (at the census of Quirinius) may not have been quite historical. This took place only years later (in AD 6, when Judea became a Roman province).
3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition. The gospel tradition was formed by believers in Christ in the post resurrection and ascension period. For them Jesus, now at the right hand of the Father in heaven, as Lord, was present with them, and though the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church. What was remembered of Jesus, of his words, his teaching, his miracles were transmitted by believers for believers. It is clear that some of the “Who do people say that I am”, in Mark 8:29 Peter answers “You are the Messiah”, and Jesus tells his disciples sternly not to tell anyone about him. In Matthew (Mat 16:13) Jesus asks: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, and Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus’ reply in Matthew is: “‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh contents of the gospels are presented as developed through Christian belief. Thus for instance to Jesus question and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was* the Messiah. It appears that Matthew’s formulation represents later Christian development on Christ’s person, and his revelation of the mystery of salvation. Jesus is presented to us in the gospels as the centre of Christian faith. Historians, believers and non-believers, seek to determine what we can know of what Jesus actually said and did by use of the gospels and other texts as historical, not faith documents. This is known as “The quest of the historical Jesus”, a keenly researched branch of study over the past century and in our own day.
4). Jesus of History. By “the Jesus of history” is meant that knowledge of the person and work of Jesus that can be ascertained by the use of the relevant texts (mainly the gospels, in particular the Synoptics – the first three gospels), on which a variety of scholars, pious Catholics, liberal Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists and others, can agree. The agreed nucleus would be preaching in Galilee, also visit to Jerusalem, gathered around him a band of disciples, within which a special group (probably twelve), final journey to Jerusalem, in trouble with the religious authorities, probably because of some teaching on the Temple, condemned by the religious authorities, condemned to death by the Roman governor and crucified. This “Jesus of history”, the subject of much modern enquiry, is, however, a modern abstraction and construct. The “real Jesus” was much more than what can be reconstructed by means of modern historical criticism. He was a charismatic figure, that drew around him a band of devoted disciples, who would continue his work and mission after his crucifixion, in the belief that he had risen from the dead, appeared to chosen witnesses, was at the right hand of the Father and had sent his Spirit on his followers.
(5) The Christ of faith. 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 t hat 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 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”. 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 (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; was it ontological, metaphysical, or metaphorical. Question on the matter lead 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 Sin 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. The 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; “I 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.