Monday, January 20, 2020

3rd Sunday A

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
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Readings: Isaiah 8:23‑9:3  1 Corinthians 1:10‑13,17  Matthew 4:12‑23

In today's Gospel Matthew presents the beginning of Jesus' public proclamation of the kingdom of heaven as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of "a great light" arising for "a people living in darkness."   As we hear the beginning of Jesus' preaching in Galilee, let us identify with the first apostles‑‑ Peter, Andrew, James, and John‑‑ by responding whole‑heartedly to the demands of God's kingdom with the refrain of the responsorial psalm: "The Lord is my light and my salvation" (Ps 27:1a). 
The Isaiah reading is the opening section of a messianic oracle which describes the Lord's deliverance of Israel from the Assyrian armies.  At first, the Lord had "degraded the land of  Zebulun and the land of Naphtali" by allowing Assyria under Tiglath‑pileser III to take captives and territory from those  tribes, but now "he has glorified the seaward road, the land west  of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles" through a mighty deliverance of his people from the Assyria imperialists.  The prophet goes on to praise the Lord for his victory. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;/ Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” The people of Israel rejoice "as at the harvest" or “when dividing spoils," because the Lord has smashed "the yoke that burdened them,/ the pole on their shoulder,/ and the rod of  their taskmaster . . . as on the day of Midian" (cf. Judges 6-7).
In the second reading from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul is combating the problem of factionalism.  The Corinthian community has divided into groups claiming allegiance to Paul, Apollos (another apostle from Alexandria in Egypt), Cephas (Peter), and Christ.   For Paul such division is rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel message.  The Christian gospel is not the "wisdom" of a particular Christian preacher.  In fact, by the standards of philosophical wisdom, the gospel is “folly” because its content is the cross, i.e., the message about Jesus, a crucified Messiah.   Paul asks the Corinthians, who seem to be allied to the apostle who had baptized them, "Is Christ divided?  Was it Paul who was crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”   He then reminds them of the difference between the worldly wisdom of philosophy and the power of the cross. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the
gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Matthew's account of the beginning of Jesus' preaching proclaims that a new age has dawned when the light of salvation is manifest to the whole world.  John's arrest serves as a kind of signal for Jesus to begin his mission.  After first withdrawing from the desert of Judea to Galilee, Jesus leaves his home town of Nazareth and takes up residence in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Despite the apparent obscurity of this place in contrast to the capital and temple city of Jerusalem, Matthew understands Jesus' Galilean ministry as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah's ancient prophecy. "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali/ the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, heathen Galilee:/ a people living in darkness has seen a great light./ On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen."
Jesus' initial preaching is exactly the same as John's:  “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (cf. Matt 3:2).  The term “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew's reverent paraphrase for "kingdom of God."  It does not mean heaven in the sense of a disembodied afterlife with God, but rather it refers to the arrival of God's kingdom of justice and peace within this world, as will be evident in Jesus' preaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5‑7).
In contrast to John whose mission was limited to preaching repentance and baptizing in the desert of Judea (Matthew 3), Jesus begins a more public and universal mission by calling common fisherman to leave their nets and become “fishers of men” (see Jer 16:11).  Eventually their mission will extend to all the nations (see Matt 28:16‑20).  This universality is anticipated in Jesus' initial tour through the whole of Galilee which Matthew summarizes in the following way. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.”  Our lives as Christian are to be a joyful extension of that universal healing mission.

Monday, January 13, 2020

2nd Sunday A

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2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Readings: Isaiah 49:3,5‑6  1 Corinthians 1:1‑3  
John 1:29‑34

In these Sundays of Ordinary Time between the Christmas season and Lent, the Church presents us with the demands of our Christian vocation.  We are called to be a holy people who, like John the Baptist in the Gospel, give testimony to the presence of Jesus in our midst.  Let us open ourselves to the rigors of that call as we sing the refrain of this Sunday's responsorial psalm: "Here am I, Lord;/ I come to do your will" (Ps 40:8a and 9a).
            In the first reading the prophet Second Isaiah speaks of Israel's vocation in the language of a prophetic call.  Influenced by the humiliation of the nation's exile in Babylon, Second Isaiah envisions a new task for Israel; it is to be God's "servant" (`ebed).  Speaking as if he is servant, Israel, the prophet gives a first person report of Israel's coming to a new understanding of its vocation.  Not only is Israel called to repent of its sins in exile and be gathered to the Lord, but now it is to be "a light to the nations" by witnessing to the Lord's powerful saving action in bringing the nation home from exile. “The Lord said to me: you are my servant,/ Israel, through whom I show my glory./ Now the Lord has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb,/ that Jacob may be brought back to him/ and Israel gathered to him;/ . . . It is too little . . . for you to be my servant,/ to raise up the tribes of Jacob,/ . . . I will make you a light to the nations,/ that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” 
Paul's greeting at the beginning of First Corinthians continues the theme of God's call.  In his salutation Paul stresses both his own call and that of the community at Corinth.   As he often does in his letters, Paul identifies himself by giving his apostolic credentials: "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God".  His message is never simply his own; it is always related to his mission to be an apostle of the crucified and risen Christ.   "The Church of God that is in Corinth" also has a call based on what Christ has done for it.  Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians with the words:  "you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be a holy with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours."  This is language taken from the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel is called to be "kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exod 19:6; see also Lev 19).  As Paul will elaborate in the body of the letter, the Corinthians have been consecrated at a great price, the very blood of the crucified  Christ, which has made the whole community and the individuals who make it up, "the temple of God" and "the  body  of Christ" (see 1 Cor 3:16‑17; 5:12‑20; 11:17‑34; 12:12‑26). As such, they are called to live holy lives of loving consideration for one another (see 1 Corinthians 13).

This Sunday's Gospel is John the Baptist's testimony to Jesus from John's gospel.  The Baptist has the role of the first witness to Jesus' identity as the saving light who has come from God (see John 1:6‑9).  Therefore, when Jesus appears in Bethany across the Jordan, John immediately identifies him with the words: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the one of whom I said, ‘a man is coming who ranks ahead of me because
he existed before me.'"
John goes on to speak of his own task “in baptizing with water” in order to make Jesus “known to Israel.”  He admits that at first he did not recognize Jesus, but he testifies that “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”  When John sees the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus, he performs his task: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” 
As we meditate on our own Christian vocations, we might humbly take John the Baptist as our model.  He does not proclaim himself or claim any title for himself (see John 1:19‑21).  He is content with the role of pointing to “the one among you whom you do not recognize” (John 1:26).  When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John to identify himself, he simply says: "I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said." (John 1:23) 

Monday, January 6, 2020

Baptism of the Lord A

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Baptism of the Lord A 

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7    Acts 10:34-38      Matthew 3:13-17

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks a transition between the Christmas season, during which we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, and the beginning of Ordinary Time, when we re-experience the saving mission of Jesus by commemorating his public actions and teachings as recorded in the various gospels.  During this year’s A cycle of readings we will hear Matthew’s Gospel, and so today we are presented with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  Today’s feast reveals Jesus as God’s obedient Son and servant who has been anointed with God’s powerful Spirit to bring “the good news of peace” to the children of Israel and the nations of the world.  In the words of the refrain for the responsorial psalm, we pray: “The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 29:11b).
In the first reading from the Book of 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 nationalistic prophets, Second Isaiah, who is living in exile in Babylon, sees Israel fulfilling its task through a gentle preaching mission: “. . . 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 will wait for his teaching.”
No longer can the exiles understand their destiny in narrow nationalistic terms.  They must now see 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.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s sermon at the baptism of Cornelius also alludes to the universalism implicit in Jesus’ ministry which began with 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 all important stage in the spreading of the gospel has come from God.  In a vision an angel of God 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 that all foods are 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: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

Although Matthew’s baptism scene is very brief, it is filled with theological significance.  In the dialogue between John and Jesus, the Baptist recognizes that Jesus is his superior. Upon seeing Jesus, he exclaims, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you are coming to me!”  Jesus replies with his first spoken words in the gospel: “Allow it for now for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  In Matthew, Jesus will be God’s obedient son who brings righteousness by fulfilling or bringing to completion the will of God expressed in the Law and the Prophets (see Matt 5:17-20).
God’s approval of Jesus’ obedience in this first public act is evident in the solemn revelatory scene which follows the baptism. “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.”  The descent of God’s Spirit upon Jesus is his “anointing” as the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of God promised in the Jewish Scriptures (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2).  Jesus is not, however, the powerful political and military Messiah expected in some traditions.  God’s heavenly voice identifies him with the gentle servant of the first reading from Isaiah:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  As we listen to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel throughout this year, we will be fully instructed by this Jesus who says: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”  (Matt 11:28-30)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Epiphany

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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, Mother of God

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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 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 23, 2019

Holy Family

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Readings: Sirach 3:2‑6, 12‑14  Colossians 3:12‑21  Matthew 2:13‑15,19‑23

During the Christmas season the Church celebrates the incarnation by dwelling on various aspects of this mystery.  This year's feast of the Holy Family recalls that Jesus and his family had to flee into Egypt, like their ancestors, in order to escape the wrath of King Herod.  As we listen to Joseph's obedience to the angel's commands concerning "the child and his mother," let us pray in faith the words of the responsorial psalm: "Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways" (Ps 128). 
The reading from Sirach is a wisdom instruction based on the commandment to honor father and mother (Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16).   This commandment obligates us to care for our elderly parents when their health and minds fail.  It has much to say to our time when aged parents are often neglected by their children. “My son take care of your father when he is old; . . Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not all the days of his life.” According to Sirach, care for elderly parents is a way to atone for one’s sins. “Whoever honors his father atones for sins;/ . . .  he stores up riches who reveres his mother.” 
Paul's instructions to the Colossians put family obligations in a Christian context.  Christians are to divest themselves of their old lives of sin (see Col 3:5‑9) and clothe themselves with Christian virtues: heartfelt mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and especially love, "the bond of perfection" (3:12‑14).  Paul's instructions to husbands and fathers in a patriarchal society are particularly shaped by the ideal of Christian love. “Husbands, love your wives and avoid any bitterness toward them. . . .  Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” 
In Matthew’s nativity story the child Jesus recapitulates his people's and Moses' experience in Egypt, as he fulfills the prophecies concerning the Messiah.  Matthew also foreshadows Jesus' destiny to be rejected in Jerusalem but to be accepted by the Gentile world, represented by the magi from the East who follow a mysterious star and come with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to joyfully worship the child king.  In striking contrast to the magi, King Herod the Great, like the Pharaoh of the Exodus, attempts to slaughter the child by killing all the two year old males in the city of Bethlehem.  Jesus, like Moses, narrowly escapes death as child, when God sends an angel to warn Joseph in a dream: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you.  Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.

Matthew understands Jesus' descent and return from Egypt as the Messianic fulfillment of a prophetic text in Hosea: "Out of Egypt I called my son" (Mt 2:15; see Hos 11:1).
After Herod's death, God continues to providentially guide the child's life through angelic dreams and the dutiful obedience of Joseph.  Like Moses who could return to Egypt with the death of the Pharaoh who sought his life (Ex 4:19), Jesus may return to the land of Israel with Herod's death. “When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’”  When Joseph obediently returns to the land of Israel, he discovers that Herod Archelaus, also a wicked king, had succeeded his father as ruler of Judea, and so, having been warned in a  dream, he settles in Nazareth, a town in Galilee.  Matthew even attempts to relate this obscure place to a scriptural text: "so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean’" (Mt 2:23; see Is 11:1; Jgs 13:5,7).  In the troubled and frightening events of this child's life, God is preparing an obedient son who will say to John at the time of his baptism: “. . . it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Nativity of the Lord - Midnight Readings

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Christmas Midnight A B C

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6 Titus 2:11-14  Luke 2:1-14

            The readings for Christmas at midnight proclaim the joyous, yet humble, arrival of Jesus as the light of the world.  He comes to bring peace to all and calls Christians to live temperate and just lives as they await his return in glory.  Let us rejoice as we hear the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds: “’Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.’”
Isaiah’s messianic oracle expresses the hope for a king in the Davidic line who will bring peace in the aftermath of an Assyrian invasion of Israel.  The prophet prefaces his description of the king’s just rule by praising the Lord for delivering the nation from the Assyrian yoke.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;/ Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone./ You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing./ For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder,/ And the rod of their taskmaster/ You have smashed, as on the day of Midian.”  Isaiah believes this liberation is only the initial act of a two part drama.  He expects that “the zeal of the Lord of hosts” will raise to the Davidic throne a king who will rule with wisdom, power, paternal care and peace.  Although Jesus did not assume a worldly throne, we Christians believe he is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s oracle though his life, preaching, death and resurrection, and return in glory (see Peter’s sermon in Acts 2).  Jesus has begun the Kingdom of God that will ultimately triumph in the peace and justice Isaiah so urgently awaited.
The Titus reading presents us with the whole mystery of salvation: the appearance of God’s grace in Christ’s offering salvation to all, the challenge of the Christian life, and our hope for the final appearance of God’s glory and our savior Jesus Christ.  Even on the feast of Christmas, the Church does not lose sight of the demands of our renewed life and the urgent expectation of the second coming.  As the letter to Titus proclaims, all have been cleansed and redeemed in Christ, but we still wait in hope, as did Isaiah, for the appearance of the full glory of God’s kingdom.  In the interim, we are called to reject godless ways and to live temperately and justly.
Luke’s beautiful nativity story is best understood in relation to the major themes of his gospel, especially his insistence that Jesus is a universal savior, who was prophesied in the Scriptures and will overturn worldly expectations for greatness.  This universality is most explicit in the angel’s greeting to the shepherds which is the center piece of his entire narrative. “’I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.’”

By dating Jesus’ birth in the reign of Caesar Augustus, Luke contrasts the powerful Roman emperor with the lowly Jesus who is born as an exile.  Luke’s initial readers were aware that Augustus had inaugurated the Pax Romana and that many entertained messianic expectations about his rule.  For Luke, however, Jesus’ humble birth is the joyous beginning of the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promises of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Salvation and peace will not come from the emperor who has the power to order a census of the whole world, but from Jesus whose parents must obey the emperor’s commands.
Luke’s special emphasis on the fact that Jesus has come for the lowly is evident in the role of the shepherds.  In Jewish tradition, they were considered disreputable and their testimony was invalid.  Yet in Luke’s account they receive the initial annunciation of Jesus’ birth and even function as evangelists.  When they proceed to Bethlehem, they witness the truth of the angel’s message and then make it known to others.  Likewise, when they return, they glorify and praise God “for all they have heard and seen.” 
Other details of Luke’s story make symbolic allusion to Jesus as the unexpected fulfillment of the Scriptures.  The swaddling clothes recall a saying associated with King Solomon who says: “I was nurtured in swaddling clothes, with every care./  No king has known any other beginning of existence” (Wis 7:4-5).  Despite the lowly circumstances of Jesus’ birth, he is already a king like the great Solomon.  The manger (feeding trough) also has more than literal significance.  Isaiah had criticized his generation’s failure to understand the Lord in the following oracle: “An ox knows its owner,/ and an ass its master’s manger./  But Israel does not know, my people has not understood” (Is 1:2-3).  In contrast to the senseless people of Isaiah’s time, the humble shepherds, representative of a renewed people of God, go in haste to the infant lying in the manger who is food for the world.  Setting aside our pride, let us follow the shepherds to adore the Christ-child.