Monthly Archives: December 2016

1 January 2017: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Nm 6:22-27 Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8 Gal 4:4-7 Lk 2:16-21


Mary: Mother of God, Theotokos, disciple

White_gold_banner_sm As part of Christmastime celebrations, the believing community celebrates the feast of Mary, the mother of God. This feast is intimately connected to Christmas and the incarnation mystery: Jesus, while remaining fully God, through Mary, became fully human.

In the first reading from the book of Numbers, God tells Moses how Aaron the priest should bless the people in God’s name. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to show that God continues to bless God’s people in Jesus’ circumcision and naming.

In the second reading Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus is fully human (“born of a woman”) and an observant, circumcised Jew (“born under the law”). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been redeemed (“ransomed”) and, through baptism, God has adopted us. As children, we can call out to God as our Father.

In the gospel, Luke describes how Mary’s thoughts and actions lead to discipleship:

  • Mary’s thoughts. Luke tells us, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Luke uses the Greek word συμβάλλω (soom-BAHL-loh) meaning “to consider” or “to ponder.” The Hebrew scripture uses the same word to describe Jacob pondering the meaning of Joseph’s dreams (Gen 37:11) and Nebuchadnezzar reflecting on Daniel’s advice about the king’s dreams (Dan 4:28-30). Like these Old Testament figures, Mary does not fully understand the revelations and messages she receives–the angel’s announcement (Lk 1:28-33), Elizabeth’s greeting (Lk 1:42-45), and the shepherds’ visit (Lk 2:15-17). Mary–like all disciples, including us–comes to understand Jesus’ identity only by reflecting on his ministry and his suffering, death, and resurrection.
  • Mary’s actions. Luke says, “When the time arrived for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel.” In Mosaic law, circumcision is the covenantal sign that incorporates Jewish males into the people of Israel (Gen 17:1-12). Mary and Joseph’s action–following the law–makes Jesus part of the people of Israel. The angel (God’s messenger) told Mary to name the child Jesus, meaning “YHWH saves.” Mary and Joseph’s action–following the angel’s command–marks Jesus as God incarnate to remind everyone that God continues to bless the chosen people in God’s own name. Mary–like all disciples, including us–shows trust in God’s promise only by faith-in-action.

Today’s feast commemorates Mary as the Theotokos. The Greek word θεοτόκος (theh-oh-TOH-kos) means “God-bearer,” one of Mary’s oldest titles, found in Origen’s and Dionysius of Alexandria’s writings (around 250 AD). The Third Ecumenical Council (431 AD) formally affirmed Mary as Theotokos and the “Mother of God.” The council ruling emphasized that in his incarnation Jesus was both fully human and fully divine: Mary provided Jesus’ human nature while Jesus retained the eternal and divine nature of God. Theotokos, and all Mary’s titles, always lead us back to Christ: who he is, his incarnation, his life, his teachings, his transformative death and resurrection, and his continuing presence.

—Terence Sherlock


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25 December 2016: Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

Christmas Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Vigil: Is 62: 1-5 Ps 89: 4-5, 16-17, 27, 29 Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25 Mt 1: 1-25
Midnight: Is 9: 1-6 Ps 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13 Ti 2: 11-14 Lk: 2: 1-44
Dawn: Is 62: 11-12 Ps 97: 1, 6, 11-12 Ti 3: 4-7 Lk 2: 15-20
Day: Is 52: 7-10 Ps 98: 1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6 Heb 1: 1-6 Jn 1: 1-18
(or Jn 1: 1-5, 9-14)
Lectionary note
The Lectionary presents four different sets of readings for Christmas: the Christmas Vigil mass, Midnight mass, Christmas mass at dawn, and mass during Christmas day. This commentary uses the readings for the Christmas vigil mass.

Incarnation: who Jesus is and how he came to be with us

White_gold_banner_sm This week the RCIA candidates and catechumens, along with the rest of the believing community, celebrate the Incarnation mystery and rejoice at the savior’s birth.

In the first reading Isaiah foretells how God and God’s people will be reconciled through the messiah. Isaiah describes this restoration like a marriage: the coming savior will “marry”–that is, make a new covenant with all people. Christians believe Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy through his becoming human, his life among us, his transforming death, and his resurrection.

In the second reading from Acts, Paul preaches at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Paul places Jesus within Israel’s history and people: Jesus is the messiah from David’s line, announced by John the Baptizer.

In the gospel, Matthew tells us who Jesus is and how he came to be with us:

  • Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew opens his gospel with Jesus’ beginnings (genesis) or “birth record.” Like Paul in the second reading, Matthew traces Jesus from Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation, through King David, through prophets, kings, and common people. Jesus has some non-Jews in his family tree, such as Rahab and Ruth, and some questionable relatives, such as Tamar and Bathsheba. Matthew’s point: Jesus is the royal messiah descended from David, his family includes the famous and infamous–like all human families.
  • Jesus’ birth: In Matthew’s story, Jesus’ birth is simultaneously common and miraculous. Mary and Joseph are religious people from a small town. Through these ordinary people God chooses to break into human history. Mary’s mysterious pregnancy challenges Joseph’s righteousness. In a dream an angel confirms to Joseph that Mary is pregnant not by another man, but through God’s action. Joseph and Mary fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy: she bears a son, they name him Jesus, meaning “God saves.” Jesus, as God’s son, will “save God’s people from their sins.” Jesus is Emmanu-el, which means “God-with-us.” Matthew’s point: God’s presence with humans doesn’t immediately create a perfect world. God invites us to change our hearts and minds and to work with God to bring the kingdom.

Advent, the season waiting, conversions, preparations, prophecies, and promises, has closed. In the Christmas season, RCIA participants and the believing community rejoice and reflect on God’s fulfilled promises: God becomes human to save us. God is with us. God lives among us. God continues to call us to change. Why God chose to be in human flesh is mysterious. How the incarnation came to be is miraculous. This is the mystery and miracle of Christmas; this is why we are merry.

—Terence Sherlock

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18 December 2016: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 7:10-14 Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6 Rom 1:1-7 Mt 1:18-24


Advent: becoming present to incarnation mystery

Purple_banner_sm As our Advent waiting and preparation for the Lord’s coming at Christmas comes to a close, the Lectionary presents RCIA participants and the believing community with the mystery of God-with-us.

In the first reading Isaiah tells the embattled king Ahaz to ask God for a reassuring sign. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, but God provides one: Ahaz’s young wife will have a son (indicating Ahaz’s line will continue) and that this son (the future king Hezekiah) will represent God’s presence to Ahaz’s subjects. Christians understood Isaiah’s prophecy about a miraculous birth and God-with-us as referring to the incarnation.

In the second reading from the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul describes Jesus’ human and divine origins. First, “according to the flesh,” Jesus was descended from David and therefore the messiah. Then, “according to the spirit of holiness”–another way of saying “the Holy Spirit”–Jesus was also the Son of God. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to introduce today’s gospel.

In the gospel, Mathew describes the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. To see the tensions in Matthew’s story, we need to understand social customs of the times:

  • Jewish marriage customs. First-century Jewish marriage had two phases:
    • Betrothal: During this period, the bride remained with her family while the bride’s and groom’s parents arranged and negotiated the marriage. On agreement, both families’ patriarchs publicly announced the marriage. The bride continued to live in her father’s house for up to a year.
    • Coming-together: In the second phase, the groom took the bride from her father’s house and brought her to his house. The groom’s removal of the bride from her family completed the marriage process.

During the betrothal phase, a bride who had sex with a man other than the groom was considered an adulteress. To dissolve a Jewish marriage, the groom applied to the synagogue leaders for a writ of divorce. The groom could also have the adulterous bride punished under Mosaic law by stoning. Roman law, however, forbade Jewish capital punishment; instead it required a public trial to grant a divorce.

  • The angel’s message. Appearing in Joseph’s dream, the angel confirms that Mary is pregnant not by another man, but through God’s action. The angel tells Joseph to do two things: First, Joseph should complete their marriage by taking Mary “into his home.” Second, Joseph should claim the child as his son “by naming him Jesus.” This act gives Jesus all Joseph’s heredity rights, including his royal descent from David.

As we come to the end of our Advent waiting, the readings ask RCIA participants and the whole believing community to consider the mysteries of Jesus’ birth. For Isaiah, Ahaz’s son represented hope and presence. For Paul, Jesus is both David’s human son and God’s own son. For Matthew, God’s inbreaking disrupted Mary’s and Joseph’s simple lives, creating social tension (a betrothal pregnancy) and possible danger (Mosaic law’s punishment). The incarnation mystery makes God present to humans (God-with-us, Emmanuel) in new ways. God is fully human in Jesus who was born, lived, taught, healed, fed, forgave, died, and rose. The incarnation mystery also initiates God’s continuing presence with humans though sacramental forms and encounters. God is fully present with us. Are we fully present to this mystery?

—Terence Sherlock

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11 December 2016: Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 35:1-6a, 10 Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10 Jas 5:7-10 Mt 11:2-11

Advent: rejoicing in our waiting

Rose_banner_smThe third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete (gow-DAY-tay), a Latin word meaning “rejoice,” comes from the entrance antiphon for the day:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus prope est.
"Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice: the Lord is near."

The antiphon reminds RCIA participants and the believing community that our time of waiting is almost complete: the Lord will be with us soon. For today only, the liturgical color changes from purple to rose to indicate joy during the season of preparation and metanoia (change of mind/heart).

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah foretells a post-exilic restoration in which the Jewish people return to God and their homeland, and God performs acts of power that only God can do. The Lectionary editors chose this reading for Gaudete Sunday to remind us that, like the Jewish captives in Babylon, our God is coming to save us; Jesus’ incarnation fills us with everlasting joy.

In the second reading, the author of the letter from James asks us to be patient, not only as we await “the Lord’s coming” (Jesus’ return at the end of time, the parousia), but also with one another as we struggle with our own human failings. The Lectionary editors chose this reading for Gaudete Sunday to remind us to look forward with rejoicing not only to Jesus’ parousia but also to Jesus’ incarnation.

In the gospel, Matthew captures two questions that reveal the identities of Jesus and John the Baptizer:

  • Who is Jesus? From prison, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the coming one, or should we expect another?” Jesus answers by repeating Isaiah’s prophecies about the messiah (see today’s first reading). Jesus tells John that the restoration of Israel John preached (see last week’s gospel) is coming to pass, but not in the way John expected. Jesus’ mission is healing, rather than avenging. Jesus concludes with a beatitude addressed to John: John should not be offended and disbelieve because Jesus doesn’t meet John’s expectations.
  • Who is John? After John’s disciples leave, Jesus asks the crowds who saw John: “What did you come to the wilderness to see?” Jesus answers his own question, telling the crowds that John was a prophet–and more than a prophet. John not only foretold the “coming one” (the messiah, Jesus himself), but also fulfilled the Hebrew scripture prophecies of Exodus 23:20 (“I send my messenger before you”) and of Malachi 3:1 (“he will prepare the way”). Jesus concludes by saying John is greater than all Hebrew prophets: John alone announces the messiah is here. Jesus also says John is least in the kingdom: John only prepares the way for the kingdom, unlike the disciples who live in messianic times and who live in the kingdom.

While RCIA participants and the whole believing community wait and prepare, we should also rejoice. The Lord is near. Jesus has come in history and saved us. Jesus comes sacramentally every day to be with us. Jesus will come at the end of history to bring us into the kingdom. God has restored and continues to restore God’s people. Isn’t our metanoia and our restoration a reason to rejoice?

—Terence Sherlock

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4 December 2016: Second Sunday of Advent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 11:1-10 Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 Rom 15:4-9 Mt 3:1-12


Advent preparations: seeking, hoping, changing direction

Purple_banner_sm As we continue our Advent waiting and preparation for the Lord’s coming at Christmas, the Lectionary reminds RCIA participants and the believing community about promises and their fulfillment, and our need for conversion to prepare the way.

In the first reading, Isaiah foresees a new king from David’s line. God will invest this anointed one (messiah) with God’s own spirit and gifts (v 2): intellect (wisdom and understanding), leadership (counsel and strength), and spirituality (knowledge and awe before God). The messiah will judge everyone justly (v 3-5): the poor and afflicted, the ruthless and the wicked. He will restore peace to God’s kingdom (v 6-9). He will be so great and just that the gentiles will seek out and join his kingdom (v 10).

In the second reading, Paul urges the Roman ekklesia to look to scripture as a source of continuing hope. God’s every act contains within it an expectation for something more. For example, God’s covenant promises a future messiah; Jesus’ incarnation promises a future Second Coming. Scripture gives hope because it tells not only of promises fulfilled, but also of glory to come.

In the gospel, Matthew introduces John the Baptizer in his role as Jesus’ herald. He carefully lays out John’s prophetic pedigree and purpose:

  • John’s place: John preaches in the desert or wilderness on the opposite side of the Jordan river. For first-century Jews, John’s location resonates with hope and new life. During the Exodus, God led the Israelites through the wilderness, across the Jordan river, and into the Promised Land. The prophets promised that God would again bring the Jewish people to the wilderness to rededicate them as God’s people (Hos 2:16). John calls the people to the wilderness, baptizes them in the Jordan, and has them reenter the Promised Land–re-enacting their Exodus story and their return to God.
  • John’s clothes: John wears the same camel-hide robe and leather belt as the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). The Jews expected Elijah to return to “prepare the way before God” (Mal 3:1, 23-24) and to restore the tribes of Israel. Like Elijah, John confronts a sinful ruler (Ahab/Herod). Like Elijah, John prepares for a greater prophet (Elisha/Jesus) who will cleanse lepers, raise a dead child, and multiply bread to feed the crowds. In prophetic dress, John’s words and actions signal that Elijah has returned and the day of the Lord is near.
  • John’s message: John preaches metanoia: a change of heart and mind. In Jewish thought, metanoia meant a simultaneous turning away from evil and a turning toward God–a dramatic change in direction. John urgently announces “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This kingdom isn’t a place; it’s God’s dynamic kingship over God’s people. John announces that God’s promised reign is about to begin.

During our Advent waiting, the readings call RCIA participants and the whole believing community to prepare for Jesus’ coming with hope and joy. Isaiah gives us a glimpse of God’s future peaceable kingdom. Paul tells us to listen to scriptures’ fulfillments and future hope. Matthew traces how John the Baptizer fulfills the prophecies. John reminds us that we prepare the way. Whose kingdom are we seeking? For what are we hoping? From what are we turning away? Toward what–or toward whom–are we traveling?

—Terence Sherlock

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