Tag Archives: incarnation

25 December 2018: Christmas: Mass at dawn

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 62: 11-12
RCL: Is 62: 6-12
  Ps 97: 1, 6, 11-12   Ti 3: 4-7   Lk 2: 15-20

Liturgical note: Christmas readings
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 mass at dawn.
You can find the other Christmas readings on this blog.


Incarnation: the message and the sign

White_gold_banner_sm On the feast of Christmas, the believing community celebrates the incarnation, and the readings invite us to reflect on the meaning of the mystery.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah proclaims “your savior has come!” For Jewish hearers, this passage recalls how God’s mighty acts delivered the exiles for Babylon. For Christians, this passage foretells Jesus’ incarnation and his redemptive death and resurrection.

The second reading is from the letter to Titus. The author identifies the incarnation (“the kind and generous love of God”) as the starting point of redemption. Through baptism (“the bath of regeneration”), we receive the gifts of grace (“mercy”) and divine adoption (“heirs of eternal life”).

The gospel completes Luke’s nativity story, begun at Midnight Mass: the shepherds, having heard the angel’s message about the messiah’s birth, travel to Bethlehem to see the angel’s sign revealed in Jesus.

  • The message and sign. Luke’s angel announces to shepherds in the fields that the “messiah and Lord” is born (Lk 2:11). Luke contrasts God’s glorious messenger with the working shepherds, who are anawim (“the Lord’s poor”). The shepherds “go in haste” to Bethlehem because the angel also gave them a sign (Lk 2:12): “a swaddled child lying in a manger.” To poor shepherds, a newborn was a common sight, but a newborn in a feeding trough was unusual. Only poor and displaced parents would need such a makeshift crib.
  • The sign’s fulfillment and impact. In Bethlehem the shepherds find the child “lying in the manger,” fulfilling the angel’s sign. The shepherd’s encounter with the also-poor Sign (the newborn in a feeding trough) compels them to tell everyone the angel’s message and the sign they had seen. Luke emphasizes that Jesus’ incarnation is a public and cosmic event.

Luke draws strong opposing images of Jesus’ birth. He places the Roman empire’s absolute power against the occupied people who are powerless to object to the census. He contrasts the angel’s and heavenly host’s glory with Mary and Joseph’s indigence and the shepherds’ poverty.

The Christmas mystery we celebrate is not how God became human, but why God would want to take on the weaknesses of a created human at all. Luke’s message is that God’s love and fidelity is worked out in human events, even when appearances seem to deny God’s very presence. Like Mary, the believing community must “turn over these words and events in our hearts” repeatedly to understand what incarnation really means. Do we hear and see God’s mighty act? Do we celebrate the message and mystery of God-made-human, or only the sign and sentimentality of the makeshift crib?

—Terence Sherlock


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19 August 2018: Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Prv 9:1-6   Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7   Eph 5:15-20   Jn 6:51-58

Discourse part 2: The bread I will give is my flesh for the world’s life

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider the meaning of Jesus’ self-gift for the life of the world.

The first reading from the book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom and Folly as women who invite hearers to competing banquets. Wisdom’s banquet symbolizes joy and closeness to God. Folly’s banquet consists of stolen bread and decietful water that bring death to guests. Jewish hearers recognize in this allegory their need to pursue the Torah’s wisdom to avoid foolishness and to live. Christians hear parallels with today’s gospel, in which Jesus tells disciples that eating his flesh and drinking his blood will give eternal life.

The second reading continues the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading continues the ethical exhortation (or paraenesis). Last week the author presented a program of formative actions: actions for disciples who are “new persons” in Christ. In today’s reading, the author’s eschatological view defines his formative actions. He reminds disciples that the age of evil powers is passing away; they must choose the wise path and live as members of God’s kingdom.

John’s gospel presents the second part of Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. In a series of questions and responses, Jesus introduced the discourse’s main ideas. This week’s final question shapes the discourse’s second part.

Jesus tells the synagogue assembly: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Those opposed to Jesus’ revelation begin to fight with each other. They frame their objections as a final question.

  • How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Jesus’ opponents continue to misunderstand the promise Jesus offers, focusing on only the physical implications of his promise. Jesus speaks to the synagogue crowd during the Passover feast, which commemorates God’s gifts of Torah and manna. In Jewish thought, both Torah and manna provide nourishment. “Eating” manna nourishes the body; “eating” (studying and practicing) Torah feeds a Jew’s spiritual life. Up to this point in his discourse, Jesus has described himself as manna/bread from heaven, whose teachings from the Father provide a new and greater spiritual life. Jesus now reveals that in the near future he will give his flesh to give life to the whole world. He will give his flesh in two ways:
    • Through the cross. Jesus will give himself as a physical sacrifice to redeem the world. In Jewish sacrificial practice, the one offering sacrifice separated the victim’s blood from its flesh. When Jesus speaks about his “flesh” and “blood” separately, he indicates his physical death as a sacrifice. The Word became flesh to bring life to the world (Jn 1:3-4).
    • Through the Eucharist. After his physical death and resurrection, Jesus will give himself in a new way so that disciples may remain in a living relationship with Jesus and the Father. This new relationship is Jesus’ continuing presence with his believing community. In addition, his glorified flesh and blood give disciples eternal life and a share in Jesus’ resurrection (Jn 6:54).

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to look beyond the physical signs of God’s care and to come to a deeper understanding of the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. The first reading warns us to pursue divine Wisdom, because folly leads to spiritual death. In the gospel, Jesus sums up his mission: to bring the entire world to eternal life. His transformative death brings eternal life to the world’s doorstep, but it is Jesus’ Eucharistic gift that brings eternal life and Jesus’ abiding presence to disciples who totally absorb (“eat”) God’s revelation. Do we seek deeper Wisdom in our busy lives? Can we ignore the meaning of the incarnation and cross? What does Eucharist really mean to us?

—Terence Sherlock

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25 December 2017: Christmas: Mass at midnight

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 9:1-6   Ps 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13   Ti 2:11-14   Lk 2:1-14
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 Midnight mass.

Christmas: God and God’s kingdom is with us

White_gold_banner_smThis week the RCIA participants and the believing community celebrate the Incarnation mystery and rejoice at the savior’s birth. The Lectionary readings invite us to think about human rulers and the Divine ruler.

In the first reading, Isaiah reassures the northern kingdom of Israel, which has suffered a punishing defeat (732 BC). Because Israel’s king ignored God and the people were unfaithful, God allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel. Through Isaiah, God promises that a coming king from David’s line will drive out their oppressors and restore God’s people. Christians find Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, who overcomes death and reconciles God and humans.

In the second reading from the letter to Titus, the author describes the two comings of Jesus, and how the community should live based on these two events. “The grace of God has appeared, saving all” refers to Jesus’ coming in history at his incarnation, birth, death, and resurrection. “As we await the blessed hope” refers to Christ’s return at the end of time (parousia) to destroy death. Because of these two events–Jesus’ already coming in history, and Jesus’ not yet coming parousia–we should be “eager to do what is good:” turn away from sin and turn toward God.

In the gospel, Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth: an “orderly story,” based on research and interviews (Lk 1: 3). He places Jesus’ birth in the larger historical context of the Empire, sounding these themes:

  • The savior comes to all. Luke uses the word “all” three times in fourteen lines: Augustus’ decree covers “everyone in the empire” (v 1); “all go to register” (v 3); and the angel announces “great joy for all people” (v 10). While Matthew’s infancy story and genealogy emphasize Jesus’ coming to the Jewish people, Luke’s nativity and genealogy describe a savior engaged in world history, coming to save all people.


  • God’s kingdom is greater than human empires. Throughout Luke’s gospel, heavenly authority and earthly powers are in constant conflict. In today’s reading, for example, Augustus claims to be “god” and “savior” (as minted on coins from this period), while Jesus is God and savior (v 11); Augustus issues a royal tax decree (v 1), but the angel proclaims a royal message of salvation (v 11); Augustine creates the Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”), but Jesus’ birth brings “Peace on earth” (v 14); Augustus rules over the world (v 1), but Jesus rules heaven and earth (v 13-14).


  • God’s peace is God’s kingdom. The peace that comes from Jesus birth, life, death, and resurrection is not Augustus’ Pax Romana, but the Hebrew shalom, meaning “wholeness” or “completeness.” The angel’s announcement of peace indicates that the messianic kingdom of God is now present among people.

Jesus’ birth changes everything. Salvation has come to everyone. An infant supersedes the emperor. The empire’s rule over the inhabited lands passes to God’s reign over heaven and earth. Isaiah’s promise is now our lived experience. For this we give glory to God. Let us be eager to do what is good, always.

—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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