A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for January, 2014

Did JB mean what he said?

Soon after he baptized him in the river Jordan, John the Baptist (JB) made claims about Jesus.  (John 1:29-34)  In order to understand the potential impact of these claims, it is necessary to know something about the development of the Gospels.  The Gospel for today’s reading is from John, the last of the Gospels to be written.  This was the time the early Christian community was coalescing, and the expressions of the earlier Gospels took on certain theological meaning.

The first stage of development was the Event.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had multiple witnesses.  People from miles around saw Jesus perform miracles, make statements, and according to their cultural understandings, inerpreted them accordingly.

The second stage of development was the Oral Expression of those witnessed events.  Jesus was such a charismatic figure and said many interesting things.  People wanted to share Jesus’ words and deeds, so they spoke about them in small groups gatherings.  Gradually, a pattern began to develop in which certain phrases and gestures apparently had more significance than others.  Consequently, formulations began to take shape.

The third stage of development was the Written Expression of what had been spoken and said by Jesus.  This had to have consistency, and could begin to give some stability to the content.  Eventually, the witnesses began to die out, so some certainty about the words and deeds of Jesus needed specific reference points.

The fourth stage of development was the Editing stage.  The growing Christian community, as a whole, needed to decide what writings represented Jesus accurately and not imaginatively.  And so they chose those writings that best expressed their understanding of Jesus.  This also became known as the canonization stage, that is, the stage that made the Gospels “official.”

What does this all mean in terms of the Gospel reading for today?  There appear to be at least three dominant themes that can speak to us personally.  For example:  Lamb of God, the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as the chosen one (“Messiah” in Hebrew means “the chosen one”.)

LAMB OF GOD:  Here we can see a reference to the Old Testament story of the beginning of the salvation account of the Exodus (Exodus 12).  Just before the final plague, the slaughter of the first born, the Israelites are told to place the blood of the lamb across the doorposts so that the angel of death will “pass over” their houses, and kill the firstborn of the Egptians, including the son of the Pharaoh.  The blood of the lamb at this moment was an event of salvation.  When we go to Mass, just before reception of the Eucharist, the priest publicly displays the consecrated host and mentions the Lamb of God.  A reminder of the salvific gesture in the Book of Exodus.

ACTIVITY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT:  I suspect that it is safe to say the real translation of the word “spirit of God” [ruah yhwh] is “the creative power of God.”  So when we read of the creation of the world, the biblical text says “The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [ruah] from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)  In the Book of Judges there is another example.  “But the “spirit [ruah] of the Lord took possession of Gideon…” giving him power to act like a Judge.  And then there is the account of the Visitation.  The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the mother of Jesus.  Gabriel then mentions to a puzzled Mary, “…the Holy Spirit [Pneuma hagion] will come upon you….” (Luke 1:35)  And then we have the baptism of Jesus where the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove. Jesus’ divinity expressed.

The Spirit of God is active in the creation of the world, in empowering some Judges, in impregnating Mary, and present at Jesus’ baptism.  It is the presence of the Spirit of God at our Baptism that gives us courage and strength to confront challenges to our faith.

JESUS, THE CHOSEN ONE: THE “MESSIAH”:  This was one of the constant themes in the Gospels.  More than once, the reality of Jesus’ divinity surfaces.  In fact,  the final words in today’s Gospel have John the Baptist (JB) saying, “Now, I have seen and testified the he is the Son of God.”

And so, when John the Baptist (JB) refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, referring to the OT Exodus account, asserts that the Holy Spirit is active in Jesus’ ministry, and expresses that Jesus is the Son of God, then I think that we can virtuallysay that JB was correct in his assumptions and meant what he said.  Our own Baptism make the above not only possible for us, but probable as well.

It was quite a journey

When we experience the sequential following of something, we often think of it as taking a “journey” from point A to point B.  From a liturgical point of view, the Christmas season began with the first Sunday of Advent and ended with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  (Matthew 3:13-17.)  In truth, it has been quite a journey.

Why do I say that?  Because if we look at the Sunday Gospels during that period, we can see  a series of steps that result ultimately in beginning to understand the purpose of Jesus in this world.

The Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent spoke about “being prepared” for the coming of Jesus.  On the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist indicated (no doubt as part of the preparation) the necessity of penance and Baptism.  John the Baptist is again a key figure in the Gospel for the third Sunday of Advent.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus who he is.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus replies by recounting his miracles of healing.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, Joseph has a “dream revelation” to take Mary as his wife, for her pregnancy was caused by the Holy Spirit (the “creative power” of God.)  And the child is to be named “Jesus,”  which has the Hebrew root of “save.”  The Gospels in the Masses for Christmas spoke of Jesus’ geneaology.  Ancestors of Jesus were Abraham and David, crucial figures in Jewish history.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, David’s home town.  Also, Jesus was the Word of God, for God’s word has power (Isaiah 55:10-11).

For the feast of the Holy Family, Joseph had two “dream revelations.”  He is to take Jesus and Mary into Egypt, and later he is to take them out of Egypt.  For Epiphany, Jesus “manifests himself” to outsiders, non-Jews (the Magi).  It is clear that Jesus came to be of service to everyone.  The baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, with the appproving presence of the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) and the affirming voice of God the Father remind us of our own Baptism which is the context for Immanuel (Hebrew for “God with us.”)

Now, what does this looking at and reflecting upon the Gospels mean for us?  Several things.  First, we must prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, however he comes, particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Secondly, in order to appeciate Jesus’ presence with us we must know more about him.  Studying the Gospels would be a good way.  Thirdly, be especially conscious of the active presence of the Holy Spirit with us.  As the “creative power” of God, the Holy Spirit can help us confront challenges to our faith.  Fourthly, we must “manifest” Jesus to others through our example.  This would be especially true regarding the marginalized of society, those considered “outsiders.”

Finally, we must consider the significance of two key themes of the Christmas season:  Immanuel and Epiphany.  “Immanuel” because God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) has promised to be with us. ”   “Epiphany” because we have to manifest Jesus to others by our example, especially to those marginalized by society.  Baptism not only makes this possibe but also probable.  Now, following this path will make quite a journey.

Interpreting dreams…

Medical research tells us that when one is dreaming, that person is experiencing REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) which is a deep sleep that allows for dreaming.  But long before medical research, we find that in ancient history many cultures found that there was something special about dreams.  For example, in the Bible dreams were ordinarily a sign of revelation.

We don’t know if Joseph knew that was in REM sleep when he had the two dreams discussed in Matthew (2:13-15, 19-23,) but he was well aware that the dreams were revelatory.  One dream had him going “into” Egypt” and the other dream told him to “come out” of Egypt.  Since both dream accounts end with a reference to the peoples’ Scripture–the TaNaK (Old Testament), we can understand Matthew’s reference since his audience was predominantly Jewish. It was Matthew’s idea to point out that the TaNaK and his Gospel were sonehow linked.

In the first dream, Joseph is told that King Herod of Judea is going to kill Jesus, because the Magi told Herod that they learned from the stars that in Bethlehem was born the “king of the Jews.”  Herod could not stand competititon for his kingship, so he decided to slaughter all male children two years old and under.  Joseph was told in the dream to take Mary and the child Jesus and go to Egypt.

This was the context for the subsequent return from Egypt and Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1, “…and out of Egypt I have called my son.”   Even though Hosea and Matthew lived centuries apart, this citation indicated to both that God loved his “son” especially in the midst of danger.  This was the theological concept acceptable to the two of them.  But, for Hosea the “son” was the people Israel and the gift of salvation was the Exodus.

And for Matthew, the “son” was Jesus, and the gift of salvation was freedom for Jesus  to go to Nazareth and prepare for his public ministry.  Both Hosea and Matthew believed in the same theological concept but expressed the word “son” to fit their particular faith expression.  The second dream to return to Israel is problematic because the Old Testament citation, the so-called “prophecy,” is nowhere to be found.  Matthew must have had other resources, but his purpose of relating the two testaments is the attempt to bring about continuity.

What can we learn from Joseph’s “dream revelations?”  Amid the many possibilities one stands out prominently for me, namely,  the “dream revelation” itself.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we know that dreams are subtle.  “Subtlety” has a way of being real without our having planned the result.  Joseph’s dreams were subtle, but he was able to interpret them correctly because his mind and heart were open to God’s revelation.  This is due to the relationship that existed between Joseph and God.

This reminds me of the word “Providence” as it refers to God.  Things happen to us, often in a subtle fashion, and we are not certain of the motive for the original choice.  I may do something, be it due to the comments or behaviors of certain people, or the resurgence of a past idea.  So, I make the choice corresponding to my faith commitments and so become responsible for what  follows.

I remember a definition of “providence” that made an impression on me.  “Providence is a series of accidents where God is speaking to me.”  Now that is subtelty.  Consequently, the   lesson that we can learn from Joseph is to make sure that we have an open mind and heart to listen to God’s voice however and whenever  it comes.  For that to happen, a definitely positive relationship with God is necessary.  What is keeping us from having it?

Challenges of a foster father

How much do we know about Joseph, the foster father of Jesus?  Actually, not much.  But we can learn something of what he has to confront  in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 1:18-24)   when  he is well aware of the fact he will be the husband of Mary.

The first challenge comes when he suddenly realizes that his fiancee is pregnant and he is certain that he is not the father.  What to do?  According to Jewish law he has two options.  He can publicly disclaim her and have her stoned.  Or he can privately divorce her.  The Gospel assures us that Joseph is a righteous man, and he wants to protect Mary.  So he decides to divorce her privately.  The pain of presumed betrayal must have affected him severely.  No doubt he was losing much sleep thinking about his situation.

Finally, he fell asleep and had a dream, which was in reality a “dream revelation.”   Revelation in dreams was not unusual in the Bible.  The revelation told Joseph that he was to take Mary into his home (which meant marrying her.)  Her pregnancy was due to the power of the Holy Spirit (“Spirit” actually meaning “the creative power of God”).

Joseph was also told that the child’s name would be “Jesus” which comes from the Hebrew word which means “savior.”   It seems that this righteous man, through a dream, learned that  God was responsible for Mary’s preganancy, and the child was to be a “savior.”

It is important to know that each of the four Gospels was written to a specific group at a specific time. This is why we note “The Gospel according to Matthew…Mark…Luke…  John.”   Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, which is why we see plenty of Old Testament references.  In this biblical reading, Matthew quotes Isaiah (7:14)  “… Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  The name “Immanuel” in Hebrew means “God with us.”  Matthew saw the presence of God with his people an ongoing process.

What can we learn from the above biblical reading?  First of all, divine revelation can come in many ways.  It came to Joseph in a dream.  The dream is a subtle way to realize God’s presence.  How many “subtle” ways are there for us where we can recognize the presence of God?  Above all, we need an open heart to be open the the workings of divine subtlety.

Second, we can also learn that names have meaning (for example “Jesus” and “Immanuel” above).  What does the name  “Christian” mean for me?  Awareness of divine intervention and the significance of names, if taken seriously, can be our gifts to Jesus for Christmas.

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