Luke

ACTA COMMENTARY

THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

SECOND  SUNDAY IN ADVENT

YEAR C: YEAR OF LUKE


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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Baruch                              5:1-9

Responsorial Psalm                                     Psalm 126. R/. 3  

A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians   

1:3-6. 8-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke        3:1-6



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Gospels are rare books.  Thousands of plays have been written, hundreds of thousands of novels have been published, millions of poems penned.  History and science, religion and philosophy, politics and economics, all have spawned googols of books. Yet there are only about thirty books in the whole world that are called gospels and most of these survive in fragments, unhonoured and unsung (except by scholars).  Only four are venerated by millions of people and regarded as the holy books that guide how they live. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, our four Gospels, contain the good news that gives us our faith, our hope, and our love. For these four come from God with the assurance that, in the words of Juliana of Norwich, all will be well, all manner of thing will be well.  The four Gospels are the lifeblood that flows in the veins of Christian people.

   Of the four Gospels, Mark was the first to be written, followed by Matthew and then Luke, then John, the latest of the four.  Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark but include much that is not in Mark’s little book. John’s Gospel, while indebted to Mark in general terms, goes its own way in its presentation of Jesus.  Indeed, each of the four offers a different picture of Jesus. Each, as it were, approach Jesus from a different angle. This Year of the Church concentrates on the Gospel according to Luke and it is his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that will give joy to our lives and hope to our hearts.

Luke, doctor and gospel-maker

The trouble is that we know almost nothing for certain about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  We learn about them in writings that come from over one hundred years after these men presented their writings to the world.  In Luke’s case we have a slightly better chance of knowing about him because he wrote two works - his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and he is mentioned in three other writings in the New Testament.

  (i) At the end of his letter to Philemon, St Paul sends his greetings and that of his fellow-workers to Philemon:

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

 (ii) In the Letter to Colossians (4:14), which may not have been written by St Paul, we learn that Luke was a physician:

Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.

  

(iii) In 2 Timothy (4:11), also not written by Paul, we are told that some of his companions desert Paul, but that,

Luke alone is with me.

In the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, there are a number of passages that use “we”, suggesting that Luke was accompanying Paul at the time.  This would imply that Luke was familiar with Paul’s teaching. Strangely, however, Luke’s writings do not reflect any intimate knowledge of Paul’s understanding of what the great apostle calls “the gospel of God”.

   I mention these matters to indicate that Luke was not a disciple of Jesus.  He did not accompany Jesus in his ministry. He depended on whoever converted him to Christianity, and the little house-church where he first experienced the life that Christians lived, for all that he knew of the Jesus story.  We know that he researched as much as he could (read Luke 1:1-4). One thing we do know about him and this is of supreme importance: Luke was not a Jew. He was a Greek-speaking pagan, unversed in the great Jewish religious inheritance, unacquainted with the Psalms and the great prayers of Jewish everyday life, and unaware of the Presence of God in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Of the 27 books in the New Testament only two were not written by Jews and these two were written by Luke. We must be aware of that fact as we make our way through his Gospel in this Year of Luke.

   I should add that the Jewish gospel-makers, Matthew, Mark, and John were also not disciples of Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee with him.  They learned from the traditions handed down to them in communities of Christians who had come to acknowledge Jesus as Son of God and God’s Messiah.



A reading from the prophet Baruch                                         5:1-9

Jerusalem!

Take off your robe of mourning and misery;

put on the splendour of glory from God forever.

Wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,

bear on your head the mitre

that displays the glory of the eternal name.

For God will show every nation under heaven

your splendour

since God will name you forever to be

‘Peace through Justice’

and

‘The Glory of Godliness‘.

Arise, Jerusalem!

Stand upon the heights!

Look about you toward the East.

See

your children gathered from the going down of the sun

to its rising at the word of the Holy One,

rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went from you on foot,

led away by their enemies:

Now God brings them back to you

carried aloft in glory, like children of the kingdom.

For God has decreed that every high mountain

and the everlasting hill shall be brought low,

and the valleys shall be filled in to make the ground level

so that Israel may go safely in the glory of God.

Moreover the forests and every fragrant tree

will give shade for Israel,

at God’s command.

For God will lead Israel with joy,

In the light of his glory,

with Mercy and Righteousness

that come from him.                                     

The word of the LORD.



In my three-volume edition of our Lectionary the prophet Baruch provides only two reading, on this day and at the Easter Vigil.  What we know about him is even less than we know about St Luke. The text of Baruch consists of three sections that are unrelated and were cobbled together somewhere between 200 B.C. and 60 B.C.  The opening sentence claims “these are the words of the scroll which Baruch … wrote in Babylon” (1:1). Its claim to have been written in Babylon during the exile (597 to 537 B.C.) is not borne out by details in the text or by numerous mistakes and inaccuracies.  So it appears that it was written by an unknown author who hangs his hat on the well-known secretary of the prophet Jeremiah who did live at the beginning of the troublesome times that led to the Babylonian exile. I mention these details because what the author of Baruch wrote was intended to strengthen the faith of those devout Jews who struggled during the Maccabean period (200 B.C. to about 60 B.C.).  What it has to say in today’s reading, therefore, is taken out of its historical context and applied to the glory that comes to us in the birth of our Messiah, our Lord, in the little town of Bethlehem.

   Our reading today is part of a poem of consolation. Relying on words, phrases, and ideas taken from the Book of Isaiah, the author paints a picture of the exiles’ glorious return to the land of Judah.  While the exiles departed Jerusalem in sackcloth with a prayer of supplication (4:20), now they return in a cloak of God’s justice and a headdress of God’s glory. Jerusalem, the once desolate city, is told to look to her children returning home, in keeping with the glorious words of Isaiah:

Go on up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good news;

lift up your voice with strength.

O Jerusalem, herald of good news

lift it up, fear not;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Behold your God!”

Behold, the LORD God comes with might,

and his arm rules for him;

behold, his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young.

Isaiah 40:9-11

God has remembered.  A pregnant Advent word.  God makes the way from east to west (5:5) straight and levels the ground, just as Isaiah had spoken in the name of the LORD, and just as we read in today’s Gospel:

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall be levelled,

and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 40:4-5

The God who leads the people home leads them with joy, with mercy, with justice, and righteousness.  Again, the words of Isaiah fill the poetry of Baruch:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Isaiah 60:1-3

What Isaiah and Baruch, and all the prophets we meet in Advent sing is that we meet this joy, this mercy, this righteousness, this justice when we kneel before our Crib.  Advent is choir practice to ready us so that we can sing Mary’s Magnificat:



He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

Luke 1:52-53




Responsorial Psalm                                      Psalm126. R/. 3



R/.  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

                        and our tongue with shouts of joy.                 R/.

Then they said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us;

                                    we are glad.             R/.

              

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

like streams in the Negeb!

Those who sow in tears

                          shall reap with shouts of joy!                      R/.

They who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

R/.  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.



A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians   

1:3-6. 8-11

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I sure of this, that he who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

  For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

The word of the LORD.

Every time (well, not every time for Galatians is a very angry letter) Paul writes to his little cluster of house-churches, he tell his converts how much he loves them, how much he admires them, and how much he prays for them.  Like God, Paul, a pious Jew at heart, knows well the weight we must give to remembering. Jesus rebuked those disciples who objected to the woman wasting precious perfume anointing his head. Jesus insists that what the woman had done must not be forgotten:

Amen I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

              Mark 14:9

Have you ever asked yourself why?  Why, wherever the gospel is proclaimed anywhere in the world, that woman and what she did must be remembered?   Why would the gospel not be complete if her story is forgotten? Surely, it is because this woman, not a disciple, has anointed the body of Jesus, and it is this body that is “given to them” in the broken bread:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.

                                  Do this in remembrance of me”.

                                              Luke 22:19

Remembering is necessary if we are to live the present and build the future.  Paul remembers when writing to Lydia and all the other women, who were the first Europeans Paul encountered and the first he brought into Christian faith:

… setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles 16:11-15

Philippi was a Roman town, a place founded by the Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.  But in Roman times it became a demob town of ex-soldiers and was Romanised down to its bootlaces. The first house-church there was in Lydia’s house and she is the first recorded European woman to become a Christian.  Paul was briefly imprisoned in Philippi and when he was released he made straight for Lydia’s house. Paul had plenty to remember of that little community and much to love, as he says in a sentence strangely omitted from today’s reading:

It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of   the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:7

In our remembering Paul asks that we keep in mind that we “are filled with the fruit of righteousness”.  And our minds and hearts, too, are filled by the gospel of God so that we come to know God ever more clearly. In our ‘partnership in the gospel’ we share in God’s determination that what is right, what is just, must be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We must know that we are partners with God in the spreading of that gospel. We begin to learn the deep meaning of our calling around the manger in Bethlehem.

  By the way, why have we forgotten to remember Lydia and her prayer group of women?



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke        3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall become straight,

and the rough places shall become level ways,

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The Gospel of the LORD.



When Luke came to describe the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David, (2:1-21), he begins his account with an outline of the political state of the world.  He tells us that Augustus is the emperor, that a census has been declared, that Quirinius is governor of Syria (and so the overlord of whoever was Roman prefect of the Palestine regions).  Likewise, when John the Baptist appears on the scene, Luke introduces him with another political résumé of the state of affairs globally and locally. Tiberius is now emperor and Pilate is “governor of Judea”, wherein lay Bethlehem.  He tells us, too, that Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee, the home territory of Joseph and Mary, and soon to be that of Jesus.  We are also told that Herod’s brother, Philip by name, was tetrarch and names his territories, and likewise with Lysanias.  During this time, we learn that Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas were high priests (not at the same time). If we juggle all we know about the dates when these people held their various jobs, then the date of the beginning of John ministry of proclamation and baptism was 29 A.D.

   What is important is to realise what Luke intends by providing his readers/hearers with so much historical detail.  He is not merely aping the practice of the Greek historian Thucydides, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Jewish historian Josephus, all of whom situate their writings in a universal setting.  What Luke is doing is emphasising that “the word of God” is at work in ways that concern the whole world. Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour, born in the “city” of David, is a gift of God not only to the Jewish people but to the whole of creation.  This is what the angel declares to the frightened shepherds (in my very literal translation):

Do not be afraid.  

For, behold!

                  I gospel you a great joy

                  that will be for all the people.                           Luke 2:10

Luke was a Gentile, a non-Jew.  When he wrote “all the people” he meant all the people.  So what is he up to with all this political stuff?

   Augustus Caesar, the emperor of the world, had won the civil war by defeating Brutus and Mark Antony.  He prided himself that he had brought peace after prolonged civil wars. He had altars and inscriptions set up in Rome and in major cities throughout the empire declaring the Pax Augusta, the Peace of Augustus, and demanded that sacrifices be offered to the gods for placing the peace of the world in the hands of such an accomplished ruler.  If peace reigns, you owe it to Emperor Augustus. Then the angels come along and sing a new song:

    

Glory to God in the highest,

    and on earth Peace

   to those in whom he is well pleased.

Luke 2:14

What Luke is saying is that it is the age of Pax Christi, the Peace of Christ rules.  He is proclaiming that the whole world will be gospelled, will have good news poured into their hearts and souls.  It is Jesus, not Augustus, who is Saviour. What Luke is declaring is that the birth of Jesus is a political fact: God Rules! OK?

   The same is true of the emergence of John the Baptist.  Today’s Gospel reading moves to the beginning of the implementation of divine rule.  John is the voice in the desert, as Moses was before him. As God in ancient times ordered Pharaoh through Moses,

                                 Let my people go!          Exodus 5:1

so now, Luke tells the world that there is a new time, God’s time, and it is a time the ancient prophets longed for, among them Isaiah:

A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’

Isaiah 40:3-5

  Luke clarifies Isaiah’s vision.  Isaiah’s announcement that “the glory of the LORD” that will embrace the world, Luke expresses as “the salvation of God” that shall come to “all flesh”.  

   John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance”.  Washing one’s body, in whole or in part, was a common feature of traditional Jewish faith.  A mikvah or ritual bath is still a feature of some Jewish believers.  Outer washing is converted into a symbol of inner conversion to God’s will.  In John’s vision, his baptism was a symbol of repentance. Great care must be taken here.  John, and the New Testament generally, does not use the word to mean ‘sorrow for sins’, as it does in our religious vocabulary.  The Greek word Luke uses is metanoia.  This word means ‘a change of mind’, a radical change.  You are walking north but then suddenly turn south - a fundamental reversal of one’s understanding.  John’s baptism is washing people of their old sins in order that they be readied for a new time. Remember the words of John’s father, the song Zechariah sang in praise of his son:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the LORD to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the rising sun shall visit us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness

and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace:.

Luke 1:76-79

What those who came into the desert heard was a declaration of the coming of a shower of riches from the hand of God.  Zechariah’s song declares what John must tell the people. A new world that is being born in a new time - the Time of Jesus:

Redeeming

Salvation

Mercy

Deliverance

Without fear

Holiness

Righteousness

Knowledge of salvation

Forgiveness of sins

Tender mercy

Light to those who sit in darkness

 - and the shadow of death

Guidance in the way of peace

This is what Zechariah sings (Luke 1:67-79). This is what John proclaims.  This is what Jesus brought into the world of those who heard John. This is what Jesus brings into our world.

Joseph O’Hanlon

Cribbing for Christmas

If you are gradually assembling your Christmas Crib on the Sundays of Advent, then today is the day to place the Magi and the shepherds around your church.  They are beginning their journey. Each week move them nearer until, on Christmas Eve, they arrive at the manger.

A homily, in stressing the longing of the Jewish people (= the shepherds) and the longing of the rest of humanity (= the Magi), might stress the longing of all people’s for all that Jesus brings to our world (see the list above).  And stress, too, the vocation of all Christians to take up the cross of Jesus and carry the blessings into our time and our place.

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