Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 4, Dec. 18, 2016

As we come to the last Sunday before Christmas, the main focus of the readings turns from the return of Christ at the end of time (fully establishing the Messianic Age, the peaceable kingdom) to the birth of the Messiah in time.
The first reading — Isaiah 7:10-14 — is the familiar passage which foretells the birth of the one whose birth means God is with us. In context, Isaiah was reassuring King Ahaz that the attack on Jerusalem by the Arameans and the breakaway kingdom of Israel would not succeed. the predicted birth would probably have been that of Hezekiah — since the birth of Jesus something over 700 years later would not have served as a sign to Ahaz. Still, this prophecy is part of a section of the book which promises the Messiah (in ch. 9). And while the Hebrew speaks of a “young woman” as the mother of Emmanuel in v. 14, in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek translation) the word for “virgin” is used. Thus for Jews of Jesus’ time (and some centuries before) this text was seen as having a meaning beyond the immediate one for Ahaz. We see the virgin birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The responsorial psalm — Ps. 24:1-6, with refrain from verses 7 and 10 — has us reflect on God as creator and the holiness required of one who would enter the temple. We think of Jesus as the king of glory who enters.
In the second reading — Romans 1:1-7 — Paul elaborates the customary salutation of a letter with a reference to Jesus as a descendant of David (hence capable of fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah), followed by a statement of his saving work and of Paul’s apostolic mission.
The gospel — Matthew 1:18-24 — tells of the annunciation to Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he would be the Savior. Matthew explicitly quotes the Emmanuel prophecy of the first reading and says the birth of Jesus fulfills the prophecy.
As we look forward to Christmas, these readings invite us to see the importance of the birth of Jesus, both for the world and for ourselves as individuals. God is with us now and always.

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Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 3, Dec. 11, 2016

This is extremely late, for a number of reasons, including that when I tried to post last week, I was unable to enter any text. Although it may seem superfluous now, I want, if possible, to get a complete set of comments on the Sunday readings posted to this blog. Perhaps even at this stage, it could be useful as part of Advent preparations for Christmas and the return of the Lord. Still, this is fairly brief: the reader will have to do more work than usual.
As was the case on the Second Sunday, the readings present the figure of John the Baptist as the greatest prophet, who prepared the people for Jesus, while offering some thoughts about the Messianic Age.
In the first reading —Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10 — we are told of four aspects of the Messianic Age: deserts will bloom; God will bring about justice; the disabled will be healed; and the exiles will return. In the light of these promises, the people should be strong and fearless.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 146: 6-10, with a refrain based on Isaiah 35:4 — some of the themes of the first reading are reprised, with emphasis on God”s power to save.
In the gospel — Matthew 11:2-11 — John sends disciples to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah, as he had thought. (Perhaps this was for the disciples’ benefit, rather than reflective of any doubt on his own part.) Jesus’ response is to point to healings such as those promised by Isaiah and more as indications that he was indeed inaugurating the Messianic Age. But the promises will not be completely fulfilled in the present life. This life is not heaven. We must await Jesus’ return at the end of time.
The second reading — James 5:7-10 exhorts us to be patient while we wait. Farmers can’t force the rains to come, and we can’t force Jesus to return. But the farmer prepares for the rain, and we prepare for Jesus’ return be being uncomplaining toward one another.
It is our faith that enables us to be patient. We see all the evil in the world — wars, violence, illnesses and premature deaths, all sorts of natural disasters — and we long for an end to them. Impatience could take various forms. One is to abandon faith and decide that there cannot be a God if these things can happen. But when we hold on to faith we realize that all these evils are merely temporary, and we have confidence that the world to come will not have such things and will more than make up for them. We may not understand why the fullness of the Messianic Age can’t be with us already, but we don’t despair of its arrival.

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 2, Dec. 4, 2016

This Sunday introduces John the Baptist as part of a set of readings which can be linked by the theme of the Messianic Age. There is still no focus on the birth of Christ yet.
The first reading — Isaiah 11:1-10 — has three parts. We begin with a description of the Messiah. He will be a descendant of King David. (Jesse was David’s father.) The Spirit of God will enable him to bring true justice, upholding the poor and afflicted and overcoming the wicked. Then there is an image of harmony among all creatures, often depicted with the title “The Peaceable Kingdom,” in which predators cease preying and live in peace with animals they now attack. There are videos which show instances of this sort of behavior, usually among members of different species who were raised together. As a priest I know says, they show us how it was supposed to be. The prophet says that is how it will be. The final section of the reading adds that the Messiah will draw all the nations to himself.
The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 72 — has us reflect on the Messiah as the one who brings everlasting justice and peace to all the people of the world.
In the second reading — Romans 15:4-9 — after reminding his hearers of the ongoing value of the scriptures of Israel, Paul exhorts them (us) “to think in harmony with one another.” The community is to be welcoming, both in general and particular toward the Gentiles (who are attracted, as Isaiah prophesied), just as Jesus welcomed them (us) into his community. There must not be classes of people whom we consider unwelcome. If, in answer to the call of God, they wish to join us, they must be welcomed.
The gospel — Matthew 3:1-12 — introduces John the Baptist. He prepares the people to receive the Lord, in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. He calls people to repent of their sins, and being baptized signifies that repentance. But his strong words to the Pharisees and Pharisees make it clear that true repentance involves not just words, but actions: a changed life. He uses agricultural metaphors — good fruit, trees, wheat, and chaff — to illustrate the point about good deeds and evil ones, about doers of good and evildoers. He makes the further point that descent from Abraham — being part of the Jewishness — is not enough. The metaphor of God raising descendants of Abraham from the stones recalls the call of the Gentiles referred to in the first two readings and the psalm. We should apply it also to ourselves: membership in the Church doesn’t make us part of the Messianic community. There is a life to be lived, and if we don’t live it perfectly, we need to be repentant for our failures.
Although we believe that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus, and elements of the Messianic Age have come when he healed the blind, the deaf, and the lame, as well as the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles. Clearly the complete fulfillment of the promises is yet to come, with his return in glory. Meanwhile, we live as members of his kingdom, behaving in a way that extends is justice and peace in the ways we can in our particular circumstances and opportunities.