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Homily notes: Christmastide 2018-New Year 2019

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  14 December 2018

Christmastide - 25 December

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)


Understandably, the Lectionary offers a rich selection of Scriptural texts for this midnight celebration of Christ’s birth, perhaps the most loved of the entire year.

The magnificent passage from Isaiah that forms the First Reading, Isa 9:1-17, seems in its original context to be a poem celebrating the birth of a prince to the ruling house of David. In a situation where the fortunes of the people have evidently sunk very low, the birth of a male heir gives rise to hopes for a future that will recall the glories of the original kingdom of David and Solomon. The series of remarkable names and epithets bestowed on the prince reflect the sense of closeness to divinity attributed to rulers in the Ancient Near East. Attributed to Jesus Christ in the light of the later belief in his unique status and role, the titles attain a whole new meaning. As divine Wisdom he is “wonderful Counsellor”; he is “mighty God”, “Father of the world to come”, “Prince of (everlasting) peace”.

The beginning of the account of Jesus’ birth that forms the Gospel, Luke 2:1-14, reflects Luke’s concern always to relate “sacred history” (the saving events of Jesus’ life) to concrete historical circumstances. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, ruler of the sole superpower of the time, has decreed a universal census. Along with countless other subjects of Rome, the family of Jesus has to submit to this requirement. No matter. The grave inconvenience for Joseph and Mary is all gathered into a divine plan. The census means that Jesus will be born where Israel’s Messiah should be born: in David’s city, Bethlehem.

Almost but not quite. There is no room for Joseph and Mary in the town caravansary, the place where travellers would normally find lodging (“caravansary” rather than, as traditionally, “inn”, better translates the Greek word katalyma). So Mary gives birth to her child outside the town, the added detail about laying him in a manger suggesting a barn or stall for the housing of animals. Wrapping a new-born child in “bands of cloth” (“swaddling cloths”) is what any careful Palestinian mother would do. The details convey the sense that this royal child, son of David (and indeed, as we know [Luke 1:32-35]) “Son of God”) shares from the first moments of his life the common lot of humankind. His birth takes place on the margins of society, beginning a pattern to be realised over and over in his life and ministry.

The marginal situation of Jesus’ birth, on the outskirts of the town, renders it accessible to a group particularly on the margins of society themselves. The shepherds of Bethlehem are the first of the “poor” to whom, in accordance with the scriptural promises (Isa 61:1), the “good news” of the Saviour’s birth is announced.

As with Mary herself (1:27), the shepherds initially take fright at the heavenly apparition. They are reassured. What they hear is a message “of great joy for all the people (cf. the First reading): the birth of a “Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”. In the Greco-Roman world “saviour” was a title bestowed on kings and rulers who brought peace and prosperity to their realms. In particular, the emperor Augustus, in whose reign Jesus was born, was acclaimed paradigm saviour on the grounds that his rule had brought peace – or at least the absence of war – to the entire world. Now, in the brief Gloria canticle, a multitude of the heavenly army signal the birth of a Saviour bringing peace of a different kind:

Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
and on earth peace to those who enjoy God’s favour.

The Gospel is not setting Jesus as Saviour over against the civil power (Rome) in a hostile sense. But by placing the birth of Jesus within this context it claims the notions of salvation and peace for the divine project now under way. The true peace for which the world longs can only flow from the divine favour that the ministry of Jesus will bring.

The final phrase does not suggest, in a restrictive sense, that some will “enjoy God’s favour” and others not. It expresses the divine initiative. God’s favour is poured out on the entire world, but only those who have the faith to believe that God is so gracious and so generous will enjoy its benefits to the full.

Like Mary, the shepherds are told to go in search of a sign: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (v. 12). The sign describes something unusual but not in itself remarkable – in the way, for instance, that the pregnancy of the aged and hitherto barren Elizabeth was remarkable. But when the shepherds – again like Mary (1:39) ­– go “with haste” to Bethlehem and find the child lying in the manger exactly as they had been told by the angels, the coming together of promise and reality constitutes the sign they had been sent to find. They know now that what they have been told is reliable and true. They have “knowledge of salvation” (1:77).

In this way the shepherds join Zechariah and Mary in modelling the reception of salvation as Luke understands it. One can experience salvation before receiving all the promised blessings. To see that the gap between promise and reality has been overcome in some lesser way gives confidence that God will in due course faithfully bring to pass the full measure. This is what the canticles of Mary and Zechariah affirm and what the shepherds also acknow­ledge when they return “glorifying and praising God” (v. 20). Salvation, then, has essentially to do with a sense that God is faithful. It connotes, to be sure, the attainment of eternal life. But it begins when people discern instances of God’s faithfulness in their lives. These instances then become “signs” of a more complete measure of salvation to come.

The Second reading, from Paul’s Letter to Titus (2:11-14) picks up this sense of the salvation already revealed in the appearance of the Son of God in human form as a sign and pledge of a salvation made “possible for the whole human race”. So, the Apostle reminds Titus of how the lives of believers should be transformed by the hope for the (second) appearing of “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ”, one of the rare instances in the New Testament where Jesus Christ is explicitly termed “God”. While we celebrate this evening the first “appearance” of our Saviour, we do not lose sight of the final, glorious “appearance”, the fullness of salvation of which it is the pledge.



In respect to the family, the New Testament shows a decided ambiguity. Documents that stem from the developed Christian tradition, such as the Pastoral Letters and the excerpt from the Letter to the Colossians included as the Second reading for today, commend family life in a highly traditional way. The Synoptic tradition, however, with its roots in the teaching and practice of Jesus himself, insists that family ties can be a hindrance to following the call of the Kingdom. Did not Jesus say that no one could be his disciple without “hating” one’s father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters” (Luke 14:26)? Of course, such statements need not be taken at face value: Semitic idiom uses “love” and “hate” simply to express a preference for one thing over another. Still the ambiguity remains.

But the task of finding some relevance to current family life is at least easier this year when the Year C readings for the feast of the Holy Family have as Gospel reading Luke’s account of the loss and finding of Jesus in the Temple when he was12 years of age (2:41-52). This offers what might seem to be a more realistic view of family life. Though part of the Luke’s Infancy Story, it presents Jesus no longer as a passive infant but as a young adolescent beginning to grasp, at this age, his adult identity.

Luke tells the story in a way that brings out very strongly the element of misunderstanding between the boy and his parents. Jesus’ response to his mother’s complaint (“My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been looking for you”) reflects adolescent impatience: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” (or “in my Father’s house” but “business” seems more appropriate). On Mary’s lips, “father” refers to her husband, Joseph. But Jesus is speaking of his Father in heaven. Into their tranquil family life bursts a sharp reminder of his true status as unique Son of God and of the destiny (the Father’s “business”) to which they are going to have to surrender him. This surrender, beginning here and now and culminating at the cross, is the “sword” that will pierce Mary’s heart, as the aged Simeon has prophesied at the Presentation (2:35).

It would be trite simply to say that here we see that the Holy Family was not immune to the trials of children going adolescence – though, of course, some comfort can be drawn from that. The Gospel is bringing out the uniqueness of Jesus as well as his identification with the ordinary human condition. “His Father’s business”, which will ultimately involve a very painful destiny indeed, is his mission to draw the entire human race back into a “family” relationship with God that it had lost through sin.

No image of God or of the relationship God wishes to have with us is ever adequate. But we do have to picture God in human terms and the “family” image is the one that Jesus left us. He taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father, ...” (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4) and, as Paul says, his Spirit comes into our hearts crying “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), impelling us, that is, to address God with the familial intimacy characteristic of Jesus – something that impressed the early believers so much that they preserved the address in the original Aramaic.

Jesus said of those who hear the word of God and keep it that they are “my father and mother and sister and brother.” (Luke 8:21). Here, in the truth that Jesus draws us into his own divine family life, lies the foundation for the dignity of all family life. But growing into Christian adulthood is perhaps no easier than growing into human adulthood and no less immune to the trials all growth entails. Each of us is called to discover and “be about” our Father’s business in our own unique way.

The Second reading (Col 3:12-21), as noted above, reflects a more traditional sense of family life. Anchored in the culture of his time, Paul urges wives to “give way” to their husbands and husbands to “love” their wives and treat them with gentleness. Today, with a greater sense of the equality of the spousal relationship, we might see the injunctions equally applicable to both partners in the marriage. But Paul’s advice to parents in regard to children scarcely needs updating.


NEW YEAR'S DAY – 1 January 2019


This feast on the first day of the calendar year and the octave of Christmas was for centuries celebrated as the Circumcision. The reform of the liturgy in the 1960s revived a very ancient tradition of celebrating it as the feast of the Mother of God. (It was, in fact, the very first feast established in honour of Mary and had fallen in neglect as other Marian feasts were established.) The beautiful (and equally ancient) collect prayer gives the sense of the re-established feast: it is all about God’s gift of life, channelled to us through Mary in the person of her Son and continuing to be channeled to us through her powerful intercession. In this sense it is a fitting celebration to mark the beginning of a New Year and promise of life that it holds out.

Appropriately, then, the scriptural offerings begin with a First reading taken from the instruction in Numbers 6:22-27 concerning how the priests are to bless the people. Having performed sacrifice, the priests communicate to the people through the blessing a sense of the Lord’s favour and good will enacted in the ritual. The “shining” of the face and its “uncovering” signify in biblical language the good will and favour of a person. Hence the expression of the Lord’s favour in these terms. The early Church Fathers saw in this threefold Aaronic blessing a forerunner of the Christian grace and blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 13:13).

The Second reading, a brief extract from Galatians (4:4-7), contains Paul’s only reference to Jesus’ mother: “born of a woman”. The oblique reference simply expresses the truth that the Son of God fully embraced the human lot, before going on to specify that he was also, as a Jew, born a subject of the Law (hence his circumcision on this eighth day as recorded in the Gospel). He who was Son of God by nature became what we are, in a particular race and culture, in order that we might acquire a share in his filial status and in the freedom from sin and the law’s condemnation of sin that goes with that status. That we have indeed become sons and daughters of God is attested by the fact that the Spirit impels us to address God in the same terms that Jesus addressed God: “Abba, Father”. The Aramaic term “Abba” represents the intimate address of the Jewish child or adult to the male parent – something corresponding to “Dad” in English. The early disciples of Jesus were so struck by the fact that Jesus addressed God in this intimate way – and, it would seem, taught them to do the same – that the tradition preserved the original Aramaic rather than translating it into the more formal Greek word pater (“Father”). Furthermore, as God’s sons and daughters, we are also “heirs” – people pointed in the direction of sharing God’s eternal life. Thus, the reading offers an appropriate reflection on the consequences of the Incarnation celebrated one week earlier, at Christmas: the Son’s full (and ultimately costly) embrace of the human lot has made him for us “the author of life”.

The Gospel, Luke 2:16-21, completes the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. As Mary had her faith confirmed by finding the “sign” constituted by Elizabeth’s pregnancy, as the angel had foretold, so the shepherds go on their journey of faith. The discovery of Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger exactly as they had been told constitutes the “sign” for them and leads them to “glorify and praise God”, as Mary had praised God in her Magnificat. Like her, they had come to know God as a God who fulfils promises, no matter how contrary the “facts” and how strange the message may initially have seemed.

Throughout the Infancy story, Mary has been presented above all as a person of faith (“Blessed is she who believed … [1:45]). Her faith, in effect, has been the channel through which the saving power of God has made entrance into the world. The comment that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (cf. also 2:51b) suggests a continuing journey of faith in which much remains obscure and unexpected. There is wonder and joy, but also surprise, confusion, and, soon to come, painful surrender. Mary is the channel of God’s gift of life to the world in this continuing journey of faith just as much as in her physical motherhood. As we stand today upon the threshold of a New Year, the feast invites us to enter more deeply into her contemplation of mysterious ways in which God gives life to the world.



Lectionary readings

First reading: Isaiah 60:1-6.
Responsorial psalm: 71(72):1-2, 7-8, 10-13.
Second reading: Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6.
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12.
Link to readings

The ancient Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the fact that Israel’s Messiah is also the Saviour of the entire world. We believers of later generations take this more or less for granted. But it is clear that for the earliest Christians of non-Jewish (“Gentile”) origin it was a source of immense wonder and gratitude. The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians read as today’s Second reading (Eph 3:2-3, 5-6) speaks of it as a great “mystery”, one which Paul himself came to know by revelation (his experience on the Damascus Road; cf. Gal 1:16), before becoming, as Apostle to the Gentiles, the principal instrument of its realisation.

Faced with this “mystery” of the extraordinary richness and scope of God’s salvation, the early Christians went back to the Scriptures of Israel to find traces of its foretelling. The Book of Isaiah, more especially, the oracles of the post-exilic prophet(s) we hear in chapters 40-66, proved a rich mine for this purpose. They feature the kind of inclusive vision that emerges so magnificently from the text set for today’s First Reading (Isa 60:1-6). It has clearly influenced Matthew’s account of the coming of the Wise Men, which forms the Gospel.

The reading from Isaiah addresses the holy city, Jerusalem. The image seems to be that of the break of dawn. All around, in the valleys, is darkness (“night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples”). But the highly elevated city of Jerusalem is beginning to catch the rays of the rising sun, a magnificent light identified with the “glory of the Lord”. At this, the nations begin streaming to Jerusalem, bringing their riches to place before the God of Israel.

The wonderful Gospel story of the coming of the Wise Men from the East (Matt 2:1-12) catches up and expands upon this vision. It is interesting that Matthew’s gospel, which of the four gospels is most at pains to portray Jesus in Jewish light, lets this episode where Gentiles bring gifts dominate its story of Jesus’ childhood. The Gospel will conclude on the same note with the great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, ...” (28:16-20).

There are so many ways to draw rich reflections from this episode. I think it is important to bring out the blend between pagan wisdom and (Jewish) scribal information that leads the wise men to the Saviour. Their own natural gifts, the wisdom of their people and their scientific investigations (astronomy), have impelled their quest. They have seen the “Star” that the biblical prophecy in Num 24:17 indicated would be a sign of a King of the Jews who would have universal significance. They have followed this star, but they need the scribal wisdom of Israel to locate the One whose birth it announces (in Bethlehem). Revelation comes, then, from a combination of natural wisdom and biblical prophecy.

Not only do they pay homage to the infant Jesus as their ruler: they place before him the rich gifts of their culture and these are graciously received. Joseph has faded from view; it is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who receives their gifts on his behalf.

Their journey has been one of faith and risk. The treacherous and murderous figure of Herod looms over all, presaging the Passion that is to come. But the riches of God’s salvation will go to the Gentiles.

In the beautiful words to the Wise Men that the English novelist Evelyn Waugh puts on the lips of the Empress Helena:

“... you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too”.
                        (Helena [Penguin, 1963] 145.)

We too walk in the footsteps of the wise men, sharing their longing, their faith, and the joy of their discovery, and bringing our own gifts to the Lord.


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