Monday, January 18, 2021

3rd Sunday B


3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B

 Jonah 3:1-5,10  1 


Mark 1:14-20                         

“This is the time of fulfillment.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel!”  Jesus’ first spoken words in Mark both proclaim the long-awaited arrival of God’s Kingdom and challenge all to repent and believe in this joyous good news.  As we struggle to discern God’s demanding call, each of us can pray in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Teach me your ways, O Lord” (Ps 25).

To understand the startling message of the first reading from Jonah, we must know something about this peculiar Biblical book.  It is a didactic short story (only four chapters), written as a challenge to the stereotypes of the Israelite prophetic tradition on the basis of God’s merciful action even to the hated foreign enemy.  Usually a prophet, however reluctantly, responds to his call, but invariably the chosen peoples of Israel and Judah refuse to listen to the prophet’s message.  But in the story of Jonah this situation is reversed.  When called to preach against the wicked and hated Assyrian city of Nineveh, Jonah flees by ship in the opposite direction.  Only after being cast into the sea and spending three days in the belly of a great fish, does he reluctantly perform his task.  In contrast to the reluctant prophet, the pagan Ninevites surprisingly respond to Jonah’s preaching with belief and immediate repentance, something both Israel and Judah repeatedly fail to do.  Although it took three days to go through Nineveh, after a single day of Jonah’s preaching the whole city repents in sack-cloth and ashes, and God relents in the punishment he threatened against it.

In the section following our reading, Jonah is angry with the Lord for showing mercy to the hated enemy city.  He leaves Nineveh and waits to see what will happen to it.  God challenges his blind hatred through the lesson of a gourd plant which he gives as shade to Jonah for only a single day.  When the plant dies, Jonah is angry and asks for death himself.  But God reminds him: “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.  And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention many cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)                                                          

Upon first hearing, the second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians seems out of step with a Christian commitment to responsible living in this world.  Filled with expectation of Jesus’ triumphant return, Paul seems to advocate ignoring our normal human obligations.  Although Paul’s rhetoric may jar our more practical sensibilities, he is emphasizing the radical demands of Christian living which must never completely identify worldly projects with God’s Kingdom.  Paul lived with an apocalyptic sense of urgency.  Jesus, the Messiah, had come and triumphed over sin and death through his cross and resurrection.  God’s renewal of the world has begun, and then Christ will return in triumph to complete the new creation.  Christians, living in the interim before Christ’s triumphant return, should live for the renewed kingdom of God, rather than this passing sinful world. “From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.”

The Gospel selection from Mark contrasts the momentous arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ initial preaching with the rather humble beginnings of that kingdom in the call of four Galilean fishermen.  Mark has prepared us for this critical moment by his previous narrative.  John’s appearance in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy announcing the coming of God’s messenger (Mark 1:2-5).  John then foretold the coming of a “mightier one,” and Jesus came to be baptized.  At Jesus’ baptism the heavens were rent and God’s Spirit descended upon him, as a heavenly voice spoke to him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:6-11).  The Spirit then drove Jesus into the wilderness to battle Satan with prayer and fasting for forty days and nights (1:12-13).  Now, as Jesus begins his mission, he proclaims God’s good news: “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  We might well expect that the world is about to end.  Instead, Mark follows this announcement with Jesus’ calling ordinary fishermen to accompany him on his mission of gathering people for the kingdom, like fisherman catching fish (see Jeremiah 16:16).

This simple, straightforward story, however, presents the radical character of Christian discipleship. First of all, Jesus reverses the practices of discipleship in his day.  Ordinarily, the would-be scholar, interested in studying the Law, chose a rabbi as his teacher.  In contrast, Jesus takes the initiative in choosing his own followers by authoritatively commanding these ordinary workmen: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Secondly, Jesus’ call demands a break from “business as usual” so that Simon and Andrew “immediately abandon their nets” and become Jesus’ followers.  James and John also leave their father Zebedee and go off in Jesus’ company.  The arrival of God’s Kingdom in Jesus turns the world upside down and calls for a radical re-ordering of his followers’ lives.

Monday, January 11, 2021

2nd Sunday B


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10,19  1 Corinthians 6:13-15  John 1:35-42


As the Church begins a short period of Ordinary Time between the end of the Christmas season and Lent, the Lectionary presents us with the mystery of God’s call, often mediated by others, but always leading to a personal encounter with the living God, who invites us in the words of Jesus: “Come and see.”  Our response should be the refrain for today’s responsorial psalm: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will” (Ps 40).

In the first reading Samuel’s call occurs in a time of darkness for Israel but results in the restoration of the light of God’s revelation.  At the end of the period of judges, the tribes of Israel had fallen into religious, moral and political-social chaos (see Judges 17-21).  Even the priestly family of Eli, which had charge of the ark at the Shiloh sanctuary, was corrupted by greed for sacrificial offerings and sexual immorality (see 1 Samuel 1-2).  In the opening lines of 1 Samuel 3 Eli’s physical blindness and sleep accentuate Israel’s deepening darkness.  Yet the lamp of God is not fully extinguished, as the young Samuel has been brought by Hannah, his pious mother, to serve in the temple of the Lord. “During the time young Samuel was minister to the Lord under Eli, a revelation of the Lord was uncommon and a vision infrequent. One day Eli was asleep in his usual place. His eyes had lately grown so weak that he could not see. The lamp of God was not yet extinguished, and Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was.” No wonder neither Samuel nor Eli initially understand that the Lord is calling the young boy.  Once Eli realizes that the Lord is beginning to speak again through Samuel, he instructs the youth to make himself open to the revelation with the words: “Speak, for you servant is listening.”  This generous response leads to the restoration of God’s word to Israel.  The reading concludes: “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”

During this early section of Ordinary Time in all three cycles of the Lectionary, the Church reads from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  In chapters 5-6 Paul is answering ethical problems that have divided the Corinthian community.   Many stem from irresponsible misinterpretations of Paul’s earlier preaching.  Some members were evidently justifying their behavior by saying, “All things are lawful to me . . .” (6:12).  This slogan may have been based on Paul’s own preaching that Christian faith had superseded the Mosaic law and its demands.  But Paul responds by insisting that “not all things are helpful” and that the Christian is not be a slave to a sinful life of immorality (6:12-13).                                                                                   

            The Gospel reading is John’s version of the disciples’ call.  In John’s theology, God’s call is often mediated by the testimony of another.  In this case, Andrew becomes Jesus’ disciple on the basis of John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is “the lamb of God.”  He in turn joyfully proclaims to his brother, Simon Peter: “we have found the Messiah!”  Human testimony is to lead would-be-believers to Jesus, who then addresses them personally and invites them to eternal life through full belief in him.  When Andrew begins to follow Jesus, the master turns and says, “What are you looking for,” Andrew already understands that Jesus is a teacher and therefore says, “Rabbi, where do you stay?”  In John’s Gospel the verb menein, “stay, live, abide,” is also used in various Christological passages to speak of the Son’s abiding in the Father (see the farewell discourse chs. 13-17).  When Jesus answers Andrew’s question with the words, “Come and see, he is inviting him into the loving relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit (see 15:1-17).

            Jesus’ dialogue with Simon Peter gives him the special title “Cephas,” “Peter” (Rock).  At the end of the Gospel, the resurrected Jesus will commission Peter, the rock and shepherd, to feed his flock (21:15-17).  Peter will then learn that following Jesus, the one who will lay down his life for the life of the world, will also lead where he “does not want to go”: to his own heroic martyrdom , in imitation of his master:“Amen, amen I say to you, when your were younger, you used to dress yourself as you wanted; but when you have grown old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (21:18-19)

Monday, January 4, 2021

Baptism of the Lord B


Baptism of the Lord B


Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7  Acts 10:34-38  Mark 1:7-11


The Baptism of the Lord marks a transition between the Christmas season, celebrating the mystery of the incarnation, and the beginning of Ordinary Time, commemorating Jesus’ public actions and teachings as recorded in the various gospels.  Today’s feast presents Jesus as God’s unique Son and servant who has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to bring the saving “good news of peace” to the children of Israel and the nations of the world.  In the words of the responsorial psalm, we pray: “The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 29).

In the reading from Isaiah, Israel’s vocation as the Lord’s humble “servant” is to bring forth justice to the nations.  In contrast to the grandiose political expectations of earlier prophets, Second Isaiah, living in exile in Babylon, sees Israel fulfilling its task through a gentle mission. “Here is my servant whom I uphold,/ my chosen one with whom I am pleased,/ upon whom I have put my spirit;/ he shall bring forth justice to the nations,/ not crying out, not shouting/ not making his voice heard in the street./ a bruised reed he shall not break,/ and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,/ until he establishes justice on the earth;/ the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  No longer can the exiles consider their destiny in narrow nationalistic terms.  They must now understand themselves “as a covenant of the people,/ a light for the nations.”  We Christians believe Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is the ultimate fulfillment of this gentle servant figure, “a light for the nations.”

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s sermon at Cornelius’ baptism also highlights the universalism implicit in Jesus’ ministry from its beginning in John’s baptism when he was anointed with “the Holy Spirit and power.”  Cornelius is the first Gentile convert to Christianity in Acts; he was a devout Roman centurion who was already praying to the God of the Jews and giving alms to them (Acts 10:1-8).  As always in Luke-Acts, the initiative for this important new step in the spread of the gospel comes from God.  In a vision an angel tells Cornelius: “Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter” (Acts 10:4).  In the meantime Peter also learns through a vision that God has overridden the Jewish dietary laws by declaring all foods clean, so that he goes with Cornelius’ emissaries when they invite him (Acts 10:17-29).  When Peter hears of Cornelius’ vision, he affirms all that God has done by beginning his sermon with the words: “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality.  Rather, the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34).

Although Mark’s baptism scene is very brief, it is filled with theological significance.  John’s preaching prepares us for a powerful figure who will bring the very Spirit of God. “One more powerful that I is to come after me.  I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps.  I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  This announcement will be fulfilled in the numerous and powerful healing miracles and exorcisms Jesus works in the gospel’s opening chapters.  But in Mark there is also an element of secrecy and mystery about Jesus which the human characters in the gospel are not able to fully grasp.  Mark sets up his theme of secrecy by making the baptism a moment of private revelation to Jesus.  He alone sees the special signs and hears the heavenly voice.  The renting of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit like a dove indicate that this is the beginning of God’s long awaited sending of his re-creative Spirit into the world.  God’s voice speaks in the second person to Jesus alone: “You are my beloved Son.  On you my favor rests.”  The significance of these words will be unveiled in the course of the liturgical year as we follow Mark’s story of Jesus, the Christ and Son of God, through Galilee, to Jerusalem, the cross and beyond.                                                                       

Monday, December 28, 2020


The Adoration of the Magi" by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA  (1833-1898)Jesus wants the same 3 gifts from us the Magi brought: Here's what they are  in our lives



Epiphany A B C


Readings: Isaiah 60:1‑6   Ephesians 3:2‑3,5‑6  Matthew 2:1‑12


Beginning with the call of Abraham, God's plan for salvation history extends his blessing from Israel to all the nations (Gen 12:1‑3).  Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of God's salvation to all peoples.  In the words of the responsorial psalm, we pray: "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you" (Ps 72:11).

The Isaiah reading looks forward to the time when nations will walk by the light of God's blessing shed upon Jerusalem.   Speaking to exiles recently returned from Babylon, the prophet  commands them to see their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem's walls and Temple as the beginnings of the epiphany of the Lord's light and glory piercing through the darkness of the whole earth. “Nations shall walk by your light,/ and kings by your shining radiance/. . . . For the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,/ the wealth of nations shall be brought to you/ . . . All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense,/ and proclaiming the praises of the Lord”  (Is 60:3,5‑6).

Ephesians announces the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy by proclaiming “that the Gentiles are now coheirs with the Jews, members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the preaching of the gospel."  Paul had to fight for the Gentiles’ right to be part of the new Messianic community without the duty of becoming observant Jews.  According to Paul, Jesus' death and resurrection is the saving event, long anticipated by the prophets, which has opened the way for the Gentiles to become members of the people of God.  This good news also calls Christians to a new way of living together in a love, rooted in Christ's own love for us.  Our epiphany prayer for one another should be Paul's. “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner-self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you may be rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14‑19). 

Matthew's story of the adoration of the magi foreshadows that the Gentiles will receive the gospel. Many of the details of the Epiphany story‑‑ the character of Herod, the mysterious star, the magi‑‑ have their background in the traditions of the Old Testament. Herod's character is modeled on previous wicked kings who attempt to thwart God's promises, only to bring them to fulfillment.  Like the Pharaoh in versions of the Exodus story, Herod becomes "greatly troubled" by the birth of "the newborn king of the Jews" and attempts to kill the child by ordering the massacre of the infant boys in Bethlehem.  As a result Jesus, as God's son, must descend into Egypt, like his ancestors, and then be called out in fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy: "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (Hos 11:1; Mt 2:13‑23).

The star that the magi follow is also associated with an Old Testament story about another king who tried unsuccessfully to frustrate God's plan.  When the Moabite king Balak confronts the Israelites in their march through the wilderness, he summons Balaam, a pagan seer (a magus), to curse them, but he can only pronounce blessing on God's people (see Numbers 22‑24).   Among the blessings is the foreshadowing of a Messiah arising like "a star" out of Jacob. “There shall come a man out of Israel's seed,/ and he shall rule many nations/. . . . I see him, but not now;/ I behold him, but not close;/ a star shall rise from Jacob,/ and a man (scepter) shall come forth from Israel” (Num 24:7,17‑‑partially from Greek Septuagint).      

In contrast to Herod, the magi are sincere Gentiles who cooperate with God's plan and, in fulfillment of the Isaiah text, come to "walk by (Israel's) light."  Although they only have the astrological revelation provided by nature, the magi humbly come to Israel seeking fuller knowledge of where the child is to be born so that they may do him homage.  When they learn from the Scriptures that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, they continue their journey, again guided by the star.  And when they see the child with Mary his mother, they respond with joy and in homage offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Mary, the Mother of God (New Years/World Peace Day))

The Virgin and Child. Tempera painting #17844866 Framed Prints

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Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God


Readings: Numbers 6:22‑27  Galatians 4:4‑7  Luke 2:16‑21


            Today's feast celebrates the merciful God, whose name has been fully revealed in Jesus, and Mary, the mother of God, who is our model for pondering the mysteries of the Christmas season. As we wish for others the blessings of the Christmas season, let us pray today's psalm: "May God bless us in his mercy" (Ps 67:2a).

            In the Numbers reading the Lord instructs Aaron and his sons through Moses in the way they are to bless the children of Israel.  The actual words of the priestly blessing are three parallel poetic lines petitioning the Lord's protection associated with his presence or "face." “The Lord bless you and keep you!/ The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you!/  The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” The first half of each line requests the Lord's attentive care, and the second half elaborates its consequence for the individual.  God's blessing culminates in shalom, "peace" or "well‑being," material and spiritual prosperity in all its fullness (see Deut 28:3‑6).      

            In the Galatians reading Paul is describing the consequences of belief in Christ through a contrast between the state of Jews and Gentiles before and after his coming.  Until Christ came, both groups were in a state of slavery, but now they have become free children and fully adopted heirs of God's kingdom.  In today's selection Paul is describing the Messiah's liberation of the Jews, like himself, who were living under the law; he therefore uses the first person plural. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The proof of this new status for both Jews and Gentiles is the new, intimate way that they may address God as "Abba, Father!”.  Paul then concludes by reiterating the new status of Christians as fully adopted children and heirs. “So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.”             

            The Gospel reading completes Luke's nativity narrative with three scenes.  In the first, the shepherds, most unlikely candidates for God's revelation, become the first apostles of the Christian message.  After deciding to go to David's city to verify the message that the angels have given them, they find "Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger," just as the angels had announced.  They now understand "what had been told them concerning this child," namely that he is destined to be "a Savior . . . the Messiah and Lord."  Not content with keeping this news concealed, they report it to others, and "all who heard of it were astonished."  As the shepherds return, they glorify and praise God "for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them." 

            In the second scene, Mary's reaction is distinguished from the others.  Luke notes that she "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."  The verb is the same one used by Luke to describe Mary’s reaction to Gabriel's initial greeting in the annunciation (1:29) and later of her response in the story of Jesus' remaining behind in the Temple at Passover when he was age twelve (2:51).  It has the sense of intense thought which returns to the subject time and again.  In Luke's theology Mary is a model of discipleship.  She hears God's word, reflects deeply upon it, and then acts in accord with it. 

The concluding scene of today's Gospel narrates the circumcision and naming of the child, as "Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb."  Luke deliberately harkens back to the annunciation where the name "Jesus" ("the Lord saves") was associated with the child's destiny to become the Messiah with his heavenly exaltation after his crucifixion and death (1:31‑33; see Acts 2:22‑36).  At the end of Luke's Gospel, Jesus will commission his disciples to preach forgiveness of sins in this sacred name.  "Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things" (Lk 24:46‑48).

Monday, December 14, 2020



4th Sunday of Advent B


Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-11,16   Romans 16:25-27   

Luke 1:26-38 


As the Feast of Christmas approaches, the readings for the final Sunday of Advent present us with the mystery and scandal of God’s plan for our salvation in Jesus.  The divine purpose does not proceed according to human ambitions and calculations.  Although Nathan’s prophecy to David and Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary may lead us to expect a powerful Messiah who will bring peace by ruling in splendor “from the throne of David his father,” we have hints in the readings that God’s will often overturns human expectations.  David is not allowed to build the glorious house (temple) of his dreams; instead the Lord will build a house (dynasty) for him.  God’s fulfillment of “the mystery hidden for many ages” is first revealed to Mary, a lowly virgin from the insignificant town of Nazareth in the obscure region of Galilee.  As Mary obediently submits herself to the Lord’s impossible plan for the birth of the Messiah, we may already expect that her child’s rule is not going to conform to the standards of earthly power and prestige.  Let us praise the Lord for his mysterious ways in the lyrics of our responsorial psalm: “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 89).

Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Samuel 7 is a culminating point in both Israel’s history and David’s own life.  The Lord has finally given Israel and David “rest” from all their enemies. After Saul’s death, the Lord guided David in uniting Judah and Israel, defeating the Philistines, and centralizing the nation by establishing Jerusalem as the capital where he placed the ark in a tent shrine (see 2 Samuel 1-6).  Now David, who has already built himself a splendid palace of cedar, proposes to the prophet Nathan that he wishes to build a “house of cedar” (i.e. a temple) for the ark.  At first, Nathan encourages David in his ambitions, but that night the prophet learns that the Lord’s plan does not depend upon David’s limited vision.  A mysterious divine purpose has been operative since David was taken as a shepherd boy to be commander of God’s people, and it ultimately will culminate in God’s giving Israel peace from its enemies and the establishment of a lasting house (i.e. dynasty) for David.  The editors of 2 Samuel 7, using the royal ideology of the Solomonic period, envision Solomon’s reign as a partial fulfillment of this promise.  He is the son who “will build a house for my name” (2 Sam 7:13; 1 Kings 5-9), but even they also recognize that neither David nor Solomon, for all their glory, were the complete realization of Nathan’s prophecy; both kings bring tragedy upon themselves and their people by their sins in the latter stages of their reigns (see 2 Samuel 11-20; 1 Kings 2 and 1 Kings 11-12).  With the fall of the Davidic monarchy, Nathan’s promise became the basis for Davidic messianic hopes, as are found in our responsorial Psalm.

Romans 16:25-27 is a doxology, praising God who is able to strengthen the Christian community in the gospel which has now been revealed to the Gentiles through Paul’s preaching.  It emphasizes the hidden mystery of God’s plan, which completes the message of the prophets and is now revealed to all nations. This plan for salvation, now open to the Gentiles, is not manifest according to human timetables, but “at the command of the eternal God.”

With an aura of solemn wonder and joy, Luke’s annunciation narrative describes the beginning of the fulfillment of the long-awaited time of salvation.  In the style of birth stories in the Old Testament, the angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth and destiny to Mary, as he had previously done for John the Baptist to the doubting Zechariah (see Lk 1:5-23).  The scene is filled with improbabilities.  The site is Nazareth in Galilee; there has been no Davidic court in Jerusalem for almost 600 years.  The recipient is a virgin, who is “deeply troubled” by the angel’s greeting and later has to ask, “How can this be since I do not know man?”  Rather than normal human conception, the child will be conceived by the power of the Most High, and the confirming sign that Mary’s baby is indeed to be called Son of God is that her kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.  In language reminiscent of the annunciation of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 18), Gabriel ends by affirming “nothing is impossible to God.”  In contrast to the incredulous Zechariah and her laughing and doubting ancestress Sarah, Mary acquiesces to the mysterious divine plan. “I am the maidservant of the Lord.  Let it be done to me according to your word.”


Monday, December 7, 2020



3rd Sunday of Advent B


Readings Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 

 John 1:6-8,19-28


“My soul glorifies the Lord,/ my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”  These words of Mary’s canticle (Luke 1:46-54) are the responsorial psalm for the Third Sunday of Advent that celebrates the task of proclaiming the Lord’s salvific work.  Like John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, we Christians are called to witness to the light, Jesus God’s incarnate Son, and to rejoice in his presence without claiming any exalted status for ourselves.

The first reading is the commissioning of the anonymous prophet whom scholars call Third Isaiah.  In the opening verses, he is anointed to bring good news to the discouraged exiles who have just returned from Babylon.  They are the `anawim, the poor of Yahweh, who are totally dependent upon God for their justice.  In Isa 61:3-9, which are not included in our reading, the prophet announces a glorious future for the returnees.  With the help of strangers and foreigners, they will rebuild the ancient ruins of Jerusalem. Instead of the shame and degradation of exile, they will experience the Lord’s justice when they become priests in the midst of the world’s nations who now honor and acknowledge them as a nation blessed by the Lord.

In the last two verses of our reading the prophet sings a psalm of thanksgiving rejoicing for restored Zion, now “wrapped in the mantle of justice,/ like a bridegroom adored with a diadem,/ like a bride bedecked with her jewels.”  With unassailable confidence, the prophet announces that the Lord God will cause “justice” and “praise” to spring up like plants from the earth.

The second reading is from the conclusion of 1 Thessalonians in which Paul addresses the Thessalonian Christians’ anxiety over a number of problems connected with the delay of Jesus’ expected return in glory.  Some were anxious that those who had died would not participate in the general resurrection at Jesus’ return; others had degenerated into immoral or irresponsible behavior.  Paul assures them that the dead will participate in the resurrection and exhorts the community to live vigilantly as “children of the light.”  In our passage, Paul gives a rapid fire series of exhortations before closing.  The community should live in joyous, as opposed to anxious and fearful, expectation of the Lord’s coming.  With great confidence, Paul prays that the Lord will preserve them in wholeness until he comes.                 

In the Gospel reading, John the Evangelist presents John the Baptist as a joyful witness who gives testimony to the Jewish leaders that the light is in their midst, although they do not recognize him.  The first part of the reading is taken from John’s prologue, a great hymn to Jesus as the Word of God who is the light which has now entered the world.  In a kind of aside in the hymn, we are reminded that John the Baptist “was not the light,” but was only a witness to the light.

In his actual testimony, John takes almost perverse delight in giving negative answers to the questions of the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem.  He refuses to accept for himself the titles of Messiah, Elijah, or prophet.  His sole task is to be “a voice in the desert, crying out: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”  When asked why he is baptizing if he is not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet, John points to Jesus’ unrecognized presence and speaks of his unworthiness to even unfasten the strap of his sandal.

In the other appearances of John in the Fourth Gospel, the evangelist continues to present the Baptist as a joyful witness to Jesus.  On the very next day when John sees Jesus, he gives the testimony: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  John has seen the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus, and now he can testify to him.  On the third day he allows two of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus, and later when he learns that Jesus’ disciples are also baptizing, he rejoices and says: “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him.  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease”  (Jn 3:27-30).