Gospel of Luke

ACTA  COMMENTARY

THE LECTIONARY

The Season of Christmas

Midnight Mass

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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                               9:1-7

Responsorial Psalm        Psalm 96:1-3. 11-13.  R/. Luke 2:11

   

A reading from the letter of St Paul to Titus            2:5-11-14   

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke      2:1-14



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Advent has directed our thoughts and prayers to the past,  to what happened before Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah. We have listened to the words of the great prophets of Jewish faith who pointed to one who is to come, to the one who would establish God’s justice and righteousness throughout the earth.  We have learned of the heavenly preparations for the coming of a Messiah, a Christ. Angels have been busy. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Magi and shepherds have been spoken to and journeys, long and short have been made. And so we come to the manger wherein he was laid.

  Advent readings from our Scriptures have opened our minds and hearts as to the identity of this Messiah who came to be born as angels sang.  That is how we have learned that that child speaks to our present. Advent has taught us that the coming of Jesus long ago is fulfilled in us when he comes into our hearts and transforms us into proclaimers of his gospel to the whole world.  We learn that in Bethlehem of Judah we are born anew into our world and that the mission of Jesus has become our mission. The past has re-birthed us and we learn that, when we kneel at the Crib, we must not kneel long, for we are called to “teach all nations, baptising them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:20).

  Advent, therefore, has moved us from the past to the present. We are being readied during those thoughtful days, to become one with the baby swaddled with love and care.  We are being invited to make his cause our cause, to hunger and thirst for God’s justice as he did. More than that, we learn from “an angel of the LORD” that this, child “conceived through the Holy Spirit”, is to be called Emmanuel, God-with-Us.  So we come to know and believe that our present melds into a future in the hands of God. Or, to put it another way, we are, in Advent called to know and believe that he is be with us every day until God’s future is realised for all creation.

  When we have realised all that Advent has taught us, when we have committed ourselves to be servants of God’s justice and righteousness, then we are ready with the shepherds “to go over to Bethlehem and see what has happened there, which the LORD has made known to us” (Luke 2:15). So, in the darkness of night, let us go to hear the angels sing.



A reading from the prophet Isaiah                               9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shone.

You have multiplied the nation;

you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

as with joy at the harvest,

as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden,

and the staff for his shoulder,

the rod of his oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

The word of the LORD.

  The Book of Isaiah reflects nearly three hundred years of the hopes and fears of the people of Israel.  It contains prophecies from three epochs, each reflecting the trials and tribulations of its time. It is, where possible, important to grasp the historical events that created the prophetical outcries of each of these turbulent times.

Isaiah, chapters 1 - 39

    The prophet Isaiah lived in Jerusalem in the latter part of the eight century B.C. when, as the poet Lord Byron reminds us,

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

     And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

The Assyrian people inhabited what we call northern Iraq and eastern Turkey.  Its imperial ambitions pushed south and made little countries vassal and tax-paying states.  The ten northern tribes of Israel revolted in 722 B.C. and were destroyed when the blue waves of Assyrian forces rolled on deep Galilee.  As the southern tribes around Jerusalem trembled, some thought it advisable to accept vassal status, some counselled forming alliances with neighbouring people, while others, like the prophet Isaiah, encouraged everyone to say their prayers and believe in God.  Read chapter 7 for Isaiah’s policy as opposed to that of King Ahaz. What Isaiah advised was reliance on God for protection. But he was well aware that the acquisition of large tracts of land by buying up the fields of the poor, had produced an impoverished people and a self-seeking landed gentry.  Such people were ill-equipped to resist the threat that came from the north. What the prophet strongly promoted was social and economic reform, if the nation was to emerge from the disaster of Assyrian aggression. Only a people that lived God’s justice and God’s righteousness could hope for God’s protection and come to live in God’s peace, the greatest of all God’s gifts.  In this he was joined by his contemporaries, the prophets Amos and Micah.

  The first part of the Book of Isaiah comes from the years of the Assyrian crisis (chapters 1 - 39).  The first reading at Midnight Mass comes from the dark days of Assyrian terror. To understand this reading we need to heed a characteristic of some prophetic speech.  The prophetic words are spoken in the past tense. But those who hear the words and are aware of the practice will hear them as pointing to the future. Thus the reader proclaims,

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shone.

But those in the know hear,

The people who walk in darkness

Will see a great light;

those who dwell in a land of deep darkness,

on them light will shine.

Isaiah is inspired to look into God’s future and see what God has determined to bring to earth.  Read today’s text and change the verbs of the past into hopes for the future and you will experience Christmas.  What Isaiah declares is that one is to be born who will bring from heaven God’s “justice and with righteousness”.   The one to come with such extravagant presents for humanity is a child, born unto our world, a son given us from on high.  This is the heir to David’s throne and he will be such a king as one who rules in God’s name must be:

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The final line from Isaiah explains all:

The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will do this.

God is determined that his rule will shape humanity’s destiny.  What Isaiah hopes for is elegantly expressed in our daily prayer:

Our Father who art in heaven,

Hallowed by thy Name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Passages from Isaiah are read at all Christmas Day Masses.  The New Testament, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is full of quotations.  The Old Testament is the source of many of these.  In the New Testament the three most commonly quoted books are Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Book of Deuteronomy.  Many are quoted without revealing the source. Our New Testament is everywhere peppered with the Old. As they say, let the buyer beware.

Responsorial Psalm        Psalm 96:1-3. 11-13.  R/. Luke 2:11



R/.  Today is born to you in the city of David

a Saviour,

who is Christ the Lord.

  Oh sing to the LORD a new song;

sing to the LORD, all the earth!

                  Sing to the LORD, bless his name.           R/.

Proclaim his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

      his marvellous works among all the peoples.      R/.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord, for he comes,

                  for he comes to judge the earth.              R/.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

                    and the peoples in his faithfulness.        R/.

R/.  Today is born to you in the city of David

a Saviour,

who is Christ the Lord.



This is a psalm that embraces the whole world.  God’s glory is everywhere throughout the universe and his wondrous deeds are for all humanity.  All heavenly beings (angels?) stand in awe of the LORD God. The gods of other peoples are “mere idols”, an assertion that is made clear in Isaiah 40:18-20:

To whom then will you liken God,

or what likeness compare with him?

An idol! A craftsman casts it,

and a goldsmith overlays it with gold

and casts for it silver chains.

He who is too impoverished for an offering

chooses wood that will not rot;

he seeks out a skilful craftsman

to set up an idol that will not move.

Note the sarcasm in these words.  The idols adored by other nations may be well made by skilful artists but they can’t even move.

  It is entirely appropriate to sing and “to shout for joy at the presence of the LORD”,

for he is coming to rule the earth;

and, and especially at Christmastide, to remember and give thanks that,

he will rule the world justly,

and its peoples in faithfulness.  

A reading from the letter of St Paul to Titus            2:5-11-14   

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self- controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

The word of the LORD.



While the proclaimer of this lesson will announce it as “A reading from the letter of St Paul to Titus”, Paul did not write what we are about to hear.  There are seven letters in the New Testament that we can assign directly to St Paul:

Romans,

1 Corinthians,

2 Corinthians,

Galatians,

Philippians

1 Thessalonians

Philemon

The other letters, introduced in the Lectionary as letters from St Paul, were written by disciples of the great apostle.  These anonymous people, who shared the toils and troubles of travelling great distances with Paul and engaging with him in proclaiming the gospel of God, knew is teaching.  They carried on his ministry after Paul had travelled to Rome as a prisoner and where he was done to death.

   Titus was a close companion and fellow-worker of St Paul and this letter by an unknown author writes in the name of Paul to Paul’s companion, advising him how to continue the work that they had done together.  The letter, as do those to Timothy, is concerned with the good order of Christian communities and with instruction for their leaders and teachers. There are good reasons for thinking that house-churches in Crete were the recipients of this letter.

  Today’s passage is concerned to remind us that Jesus comes among us bringing salvation for all humanity.  Christians are reminded to live lives in this present time in the hope of the glory to come. We, and the whole world, are the recipients of the blessings of God, brought to us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  At this blessed Christmas time of joy and celebration we are reminded of the responsibilities that come upon those who pause and listen to what happened once in royal David’s city.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke      2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the LORD appeared to them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth

peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

The Gospel of the LORD.

Two Powers

Luke is well aware of the political implications of what Jesus taught, what he did, and what he demanded of those called to commit themselves to his cause.  The political realities of the world to which this child was born are outlined. Augustus, the one who defeated Antony and Cleopatra, was emperor. Quirinius was the governor of Syria and he controlled the legions that were on hand to keep places like Palestine quiet.  He was the one who was mandated to carry out the census that forced Joseph to travel with Mary to Bethlehem

  Luke is especially careful to inform his readers of another power and another king.  God has chosen that the one to be born is a descendant of King David. Luke brings Joseph and Mary to “the city of David” for that was where David was born.  Of course Bethlehem was no city.  It was a tiny village of no consequence.  But, unlike totally obscure Nazareth, it is mentioned 40 times in the Old Testament and so has a proud history in God’s unfolding story.

  There are, therefore, two powers on display in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  There is the political power and there is the power of God. These powers will persist throughout the Gospel and throughout Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.  It will end when Paul, a prisoner of the imperial power, will come to Rome and begin there to proclaim the gospel of God.

A Child is Born

In one sentence Luke tells of the birth of this child.  Here is a very literal translation:

And in happened that, in their being there, her days were fulfilled, and she gave birth to her first-born son, and she swaddled him and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:6-7   

Just one sentence.  Yet it contains much to ponder.

in their being there:  It is important to emphasise that it was while they were in Bethlehem, in the city of David, that this child was born.  The phrase emphasises the family link between David the King and Mary’s child. At his death the inscription over his head is true:  “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38).

A first-born son:  The fact that Jesus is Mary’s first-born is underlined.  When Jesus is presented (to God) at the Temple in Jerusalem, the significance of ‘first-born’ is explained:

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the LORD (as it is written in the Law of the LORD, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”.                                      Luke 2:22-23

The importance of the presentation of the first-born is underlined in several Old Testament texts:

The LORD said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.                         Exodus 13:1

On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD.     

Numbers 3:12-13

The practice of offering the first-born was intended to remind God’s people that God killed the first-born of Egypt as the tenth plague to force Pharaoh “to let my people go”.  The first-born of the people of Israel were spared. The first-born were regarded as a special gift from God and so had a place of honour and privilege in the family. They were offered to God but God’s handed them back to their parents as he had spared the first-born of the people he delivered from the hands of Pharaoh.  The ritual service is a reminder that it is God who sets people free.

  The fact that Luke insists that Jesus was the first-born does not suggest that Mary had further children or that she did not give birth to other children.  

Swaddled

Mary swaddled her child.  The Greek verb here is rightly translated by an old English verb.  To swaddle a baby meant to wrap it around with strips of cloth. In the Wisdom of Solomon, the anonymous author writes in the person of King Solomon.  While the king declares that “I am a mortal, like all men”, yet, he is proud to note, he was not a neglected child:


I was nursed with care in swaddling bands.

For no king has had a different beginning of existence.                    Wisdom of Solomon 7:4-5

Again the details of swaddling hint at the royal nature of the child born to be king.

And laid him in a manger

The Greek word translated “manger” could be a stall or, more likely, a moveable feeding trough.  Following St Francis of Assisi, the inventor of our Crib scene, Christians seem to have settled for a trough.   But the manger/trough is not without significance.

Luke may have in mind a sentence from the Greek translation of the opening of the Book of Isaiah:

The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows the stall of its master, but Israel has not known me.                                      Isaiah 1:3

That sentence of Isaiah booked the ox and the ass ringside seats in our Crib.



… because there was no place for them in the inn

One common explanation seems simple enough: overcrowding.  But its precise meaning in Luke’s Gospel is not so obvious as it appears to be.  The Greek word (katalyma), translated “inn” in our English Bibles, is used to translate five different Hebrew words.   Given Luke’s tendency to turn to the Old Testament to lace his own words with significance, I think that he might have had an eye on two incidents.

  First, there is the story of David’s adultery and murder (the David and Bathsheba business).  One of the results of those sordid incidents is that God denies David the honour of building a temple in Jerusalem.  The Presence of God on earth does not need a temple and certainly not one built by David. According to the Greek Bible at Luke’s elbow, this is what God instructs Nathan the prophet to say to the king:

Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a katalyma for my dwelling.

2 Samuel 7:5-6

The implication here is that God’s Presence was with the people in their travels from Egypt and travelled like them in an impermanent dwelling, a tent.  The privilege of building a permanent Temple in Jerusalem will be given to Solomon.

  This suggests that, while God was not inconvenienced  by a temporary dwelling place, a more permanent place of Presence would be built.  So placing the child in the manager, and not in the bed-and-breakfast katalyma, is to confirm that God’s Presence in Jesus is to be a permanent residence, (and a Presence that feeds the hungry, if the manger was a feeding trough).

  What we need to understand is that the “manger” seems to Luke to suggest permanent presence and that he seems to appeal, as he does everywhere, to the Old Testament to support his theological teaching.

  Secondly, Luke may have in mind another story, that of Hannah, a childless wife of the priest Elkanah in the days before Jerusalem’s Temple was built:

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh.                                                                             1 Samuel 1:3

His two wives went with him but only one was given a portion of the sacrifice to offer in her name, a privilege she flaunted in the face of childless Hannah.  But Hannah prayed and “poured out her soul before the LORD”, pleading that she was not “a worthless woman” (1:16). Her prayer was answered:

And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.”

1 Samuel 19-20

We all pray Mary’s Magnificat.  Actually it is Hannah’s Magnificat, for most of Mary’s prayer is cribbed from Hannah.  You will find it in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Hannah’s is a good story to read before you set out for Midnight Mass.

An angel, shepherds, a multitude of the heavenly host

The private, quiet birth scene gives way to more public affirmation of what has happened.  Shepherds, out in the field ‘by night’, are visited by an angel of the LORD, with the glory of the LORD shining about them.

  First, ‘an angel of the LORD’ does not mean a heavenly person, with or without wings.  In the Old Testament ‘angel of the LORD’ is a literary way of describing God becoming present to a human being.  The account of Moses and the burning bush throws light on the matter:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in- law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3:1-6

 So we must conclude that the shepherds experienced the Presence of God.  This is confirmed by the standard reaction: they feared with a great fear, and with the standard gentle persuasion: Do not be afraid.

  The message given to the shepherds is beautifully expressed in typically Lukan words:

For, behold! I gospel you with a great joy that will be for all the people because today is born to you a saviour who is Christ the Lord in the city of David. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a child swaddled  and lying in a manger. Luke 2:9-12

  I have repeated the translation here to emphasise the particular way Luke expresses the wondrous nature of what he reports to his readers and hearers.  Every word is worthy of meditation and prayer, and, of course, excites great joy.

   Secondly, a heavenly host joins the angel.  It is worth noting that the word for “hosts” is “stratia”, from which English derives the word “strategy”.  It means an army and yet again Luke uses words (with plenty of Old Testament authority) to stress that in the real world Caesar Augustus is not the only one with an army.

  But God’s army sings of peace.  God’s true excellence (‘glory’) is set to music by the angel choir.  The glory that (in human imagination) lights up heaven has come to earth ushering in heavenly peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).  It is a peace that is close to the heart of God (“with whom He is well pleased”).

  A piece of history that we have met before will help to clarify Luke’s intentions.  When Augustus has defeated Brutus and his lot at the Battle of Philippi and Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, he brought peace to the empire. Being a man who believed passionately in advertising, he set about instructing the local powers in cities and towns around the empire to erect altars dedicated with the title Ars Pacis Augustae, the Altar of the Augustan Peace.  There is a prominent one in Rome to this day.  The point of the exercise was to inform everyone that he, the great saviour, was responsible for creating peace and for the maintenance of peace in the world.  The day of the birth day of Augustus was declared to be the day ‘The Saviour of the World’ was born. Luke had other ideas. For him, Jesus is the true saviour and it is the Pax Christi that causes the heavenly host to burst into song, not the Pax Augusta.

  When Jesus comes down the Mount of Olives in solemn and noisy procession, - as we learn on Palm Sunday - the crowd began  “to rejoice and praise God”, as Luke records:

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Luke 19:37-38

The Pax Christi, Christ’s Peace, is presented in the first and last pages of Luke’s Gospel.

 There is a beautiful word of God in the Wisdom of Solomon, (mentioned above), that tells of the blessings that come as we, with the shepherds, watch by night:

When all things were in quiet silence,

and the night in its swift course was half spent,

your powerful word leaped down

from heaven’s royal throne.

18:14-15



Joseph O’Hanlon



    

  





   
















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