Hope you have enjoyed this lovely mild week! Here is the January 29, 2017 Bulletin
“Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
The readings this weekend introduce us to the important biblical concept of the “anawim” or “the poor of God.” These are those people, mostly but not necessarily economically poor, who know their need of God, and humbly seek his will in their lives.
The prophet Zephaniah in our first reading describes their basic attitude. They “seek the Lord, do his commands, seek righteousness, seek humility, seek refuge in the name of the Lord…do no wrong and utter no lies, a deceitful tongue shall not be found in their mouths.” St Paul to the Corinthians in our second reading, reminds them that “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Nonetheless, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world …so that no one may boast in the presence of God”
And Jesus in our gospel, setting out the charter for the kingdom of heaven, describes what matters in the eyes of God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers.” None of these attitudes cuts much ice in the eyes of the world, but they are all important for those who want to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
How many of our attitudes are “beatitudes,” how many exhibit the attitudes of the anawim, the poor of God, who are blessed by God?
“The yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, the rod of their oppressor, you have smashed as on the day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4)
Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour, 9/11..Just to say these names evokes a flurry of poignant memories and sadness. They remind us of key moments of defeat and destruction in the history of the civilized world. But they also evoke memories of nations rising from the ashes of defeat to a glorious re-awakening.
Just the same evocation would have been aroused by the prophet Isaiah’s mention of the “Day of Midian.” People would automatically recall the events recorded in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, chapters 6 and 7. There, the nation of Israel was being terribly oppressed by the army of Midian, as they sought to establish themselves in the Promised Land. At the lowest moment of Israel’s fortunes, the angel of the Lord turns up at the door of a certain Gideon, who describes his clan as the least of the tribe of Manasseh, and himself as the weakest member of that clan, and the angel commissions Gideon to rise up and defeat Midian. How can that possibly happen? “Because the Lord will be with you”, the angel replies, and, incredibly, miraculously, Gideon does arise and, with an army of only 300, defeats his enemy, many hundreds of thousands strong.
The prophet Isaiah is addressing a people in the north of Israel, who had known wave after wave of invasion and destruction. In fact, just before Isaiah writes, the mighty nation of Assyria had invaded northern Israel and taken captive the tribes in that area. But it is precisely at the lowest point of the people’s fortunes that God promises a Savior to come and rescue them from their oppressor. When the gospel of Matthew this Sunday tells us that it is precisely in this area of Israel that Jesus chooses to base his headquarters and begin his ministry of healing and deliverance, it is telling us that Jesus is the Savior promised by God. However, he recognizes that the true oppression over the people is the oppression of sin, with the devil as the prime instigator of evil. If the people are truly to be set free, the power of Satan, sin and death must be broken.
This is what Jesus will bring about by his own death and resurrection. The coming of Jesus into the world, his incarnation as a human being, announces the arising of the human race out of its desperate situation of bondage to Satan, sin and death. In his human body, Jesus will break the power of these oppressors and make a new beginning for humanity. This is the good news which the Christmas event announces, and which the Easter event will bring about finally and forever. You and I are proclaimers of this good news, sent out into the world to call others to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” How can we possibly transform the world by our proclamation, weak and pitifully small as we are? “Because the Lord will be with us!!”
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
These familiar words from the liturgy of the mass, said when the priest breaks the host just before communion, are actually taken from John the Baptist, pointing out Jesus in today’s gospel. The breaking of the host symbolizes Jesus offering himself as lambs were offered as sin-offerings in sacrifice at the temple of Jerusalem. The reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God is an echo of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 53, verses 7 and 10 speaking about the “servant of the Lord” who is led to his death like a lamb led to slaughter. In Isaiah the death of the servant is seen as the ultimate offering to take away the sins of mankind. Christians have always seen Jesus’ death on the cross as being an exact fulfilment of the words of Isaiah’s prophecy.
The reference to Jesus being the “Lamb of God” may also be a reference to the Passover lamb. In Exodus 12, just before God is about to strike down the first born sons of the Egyptians, to force the Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to go free from their slavery and journey to the Promised Land, Moses is told to instruct the people to Israel to sacrifice a lamb “without blemish.” The blood of the lamb was to be sprinkled around the threshold of the Israelites’ homes, so that the angel of destruction, seeing the blood, would “pass over” the home and not strike down the first born son. Jesus is seen as that lamb, whose blood shed at Calvary, would deliver us from the penalty of hell, because it would wash away our sins. In John’s gospel, Jesus actually dies at the very hour (3pm) when the lambs for the Passover would be sacrificed by the priests at the Temple. After that, the cry would be proclaimed throughout the Temple “no more lambs to be sacrificed,” i.e. after 3pm. Jesus’ words on the cross as he dies “It is finished” is a deeper fulfilment of that proclamation, meaning no more sacrifices for sin need to be made, because Jesus, by his death, has made the once-for-all sacrifice for sin. St Peter in his first letter (1:19) expresses all this succinctly when he writes: “we were ransomed from our sin with the precious blood of Jesus as a spotless unblemished lamb.”
All of this rich imagery from the Old Testament is called to mind, then, when the priests elevates the host during Mass and proclaims the words “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
This Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. Here is a commentary by Fr Denny Dempsey on this event
“The Magi were not themselves kings but, rather, a priestly group who sought knowledge from every imaginable source (the word “magic” is derived from their practices) and the ability to apply that knowledge to predict and prepare for the future. One of those sources of information came from watching the stars. According to the popular cosmology of the time, people believed the earth to be covered by a dome, across which God or the gods caused the heavenly bodies to move in patterns thought to contain coded messages. Such was the logic behind astrology.
From a science acceptable in our day, astronomers tell us that in 6 B.C. Magi in the region of Assyria or Babylonia would have been able to see Jupiter (which represented royalty) pass through Aries (representative of the Jewish people , perhaps due to their history as shepherds) . The Magi would have interpreted this as a divine sign of the birth of a great Jewish king. On reporting their findings, their own king may have sent them as his representatives bearing gifts, a common way for kings of the past to build alliances and secure peaceful relations.
King Herod ruled as King of Judah from 37 to his death in 4 B.C. Tyrannical and suspicious to the point of paranoia, he had all actual and presumed opposition eliminated including his wife and several other members of his own family. He built fortresses (including Herodium and Masada) around the country as places he could escape to in case of a popular uprising. I have read that he had a list drawn up, naming those most popular in every town and city of Judah with a standing order that they be killed in case of his own death, a unique sort of life insurance policy. His soldiers, however, refused to carry out the order when he did die. Such a person would be capable of commanding soldiers to kill babies in Bethlehem on the possibility of one being a future king. No wonder he and the people of Jerusalem, for different reasons, were troubled at the news brought by the Magi. Placing Jesus’ birth a couple of years prior to Herod’s death (the family was living in Egypt when they heard of the death of King Herod) would put the birth of Jesus around 6 B.C., which aligns with the appearance of the star. When the monk Dionysius Exiguus was commissioned by the pope in 525 A.D. to figure out the year Jesus was born and renumber all years accordingly, he was off by those six years, not bad given the information he had to work with.