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

Archive for December, 2015

“Do I make myself clear?”

Professors in the classroom can usually tell  whether students understood the lecture or not.  What gives probability to the veracity of that observation is that when students from different cultural backgrounds wind up asking the same question.

In the Gospel for the third Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:10-18),  it appears that John the Baptist was able to get his message across because three different groups from various backgrounds wound up asking the same question, which was “What should we do?”  The three groups were:  Those standing around John as he was preaching, some tax collectors, and soldiers.

What was John’s reply to these groups?  To those folks around him, his response was twofold.  “To those who have two cloaks, give one to the person who has none.”  And, “Whoever has food should do the same.”  The basic response was to share clothing and food with those who have none.

To the tax collectors John said, “Don’t charge more that what has already been established.”  The focus here was honesty.  I don’t have to tell you that there are folks who would think little of cheating you.

And the third group consists of the soldiers. They may well represent anyone who wears a uniform which presumably gives them authority over others.  And what was their Johannine response?  The soldiers (most likely the policemen of our day) were not to abuse people, nor to make false claims about those they were arresting, and they were supposed to be satisfied with their wages.

What are we to make of this group?  Well, one might wonder why John chose to focus on “wages” since the other two items deal directly with dealing with other people.  Nevertheless, the focus seems to be recognizing the dignity of others.  Most likely the reference was to the belief that we are all created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).  Therefore, one must so act.

The assembled gathering was pleasantly surprised to hear these responses from John, so they asked him if the were the Messiah (the one sent).  He said “No,” and spoke about Baptism to justify his answer.  Of himself, he said “I am baptizing you with water.” Of Jesus, he said “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…”  Water vs. Holy Spirit and Fire.  What is the difference?

John’s baptism with water indicated repentance.  This was basically an interior process.  Jesus’ baptism was with the Holy Spirit and Fire.  Quite likely subsequent readers understood the message of Pentecost, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit motivating recipients to preach the message of Jesus to others–with the same power and energy as spreading fire.  That is to say that Jesus’ baptism was not only interior, but also exterior.

What can we learn from this Gospel?  Above all, especially during this time in Advent, we are all asking “What can we do?”  Faced as we are by so many needs,  John’s answer to the three groups can be the same answer for us.

First of all, share with others who would include the poor, the sick, the stranger.  Sharing food and clothing would be a good start.  Second, honesty with others.  Our credibility is enhanced once people have a sense that we are fair about how we handle money.  Thirdly, if we seem to be in possession of authority because of the uniform we wear, treating other people kindly by not abusing them or saying things they did when in reality they didn’t would be treating them with dignity.

Finally, focusing on our Baptism reminds us that in addition to repentance we are also motivated to proclaim the message of Jesus to the world.  Taking account of the above lets us know that John’s comments have made him clear to us.


Happy New Year !

Most people raise eyebrows and wear a quizzical look when I wish them a happy new year near the end of November.  Why?  Because the liturgical year ordinarily begins toward the end of November with the first Sunday in Advent.  “Advent,” from the Latin, means “coming toward.”

The “coming toward” is actually an underlying theme in the church year because the year represents God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ–an actual “coming toward” from heaven to earth.

In order to gain somewhat of a clarification of the church year, the image of a circle would be very helpful.  The line coming from the top-down (left side of circle) would be the period we know as ADVENT-CHRISTMAS.  This period utilizes the primary motif of “Immanuel,” Hebrew for “God with us.”

The line from the left-right (lower part of the circle) represents LENT-EASTER.  This period recounts Jesus’ life, preaching and teaching which results in the Jewish leaders’ eventual anger and hostility.  This series of events results in Jesus’  suffering, death and resurrection, and ultimately Jesus’ victory over death.

The following period (the line from the bottom-up, right side of circle) is known as as the time of PENTECOST, which includes the Ascension of Jesus,  the time when he commissions his disciples to carry on his ministry.  Soon follows the feast of Pentecost when the disciples receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit enabling them to preach and teach the message of Jesus to others.

Completing the circle is the period known as ORDINARY TIME  (the line from the top-right to the top-left).  It is during these days that the biblical readings at Mass suggest to the disciple some of the attitudes and patterns of behavior that can help proclaim Jesus’ message to others.

For example:  First, the church year is a constant reminder of the IMMANUEL promise (“God with us”).  The period ADVENT-CHRISTMAS presents the reality that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  The presence of God with his people was important to the people of the Old Testament as was later demonstrated in the person of Jesus in the New Testament.  The feast of the Epiphany (shortly after Christmas) demonstrates that Jesus came for Gentiles as well as for the Jews.

Second, suffering is very much a part of the Christian life.  The period LENT-EASTER points out that Jesus’ message was one of promoting justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness and the like.  Not everyone will be happy with that which would most likely lead to suffering and perhaps death for many disciples (maybe us?).  Yet the Resurrection promises new life.

Third, depression is sure to follow negative experiences in our proclaiming Jesus’ ministry to others.  The period of PENTECOST offers us hope with the help of the Holy Spirit, not only because of our Baptism, but also because of our reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

Fourth, ORDINARY TIME is a good time because we have the opportunity to renew ourselves for the ongoing struggles against the bad folk.  And as long as we continue to fulfill Jesus’ ministry on earth, in spite of the challenges, we will be able to maintain the IMMANUEL promise.  As a reminder, maybe next year, on or about the First Sunday of Advent, we can wear funny hats and blow noisemakers as we wish one another “Happy New Year!”

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