The Second Sunday after Christmass, 5 January 2014

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84, or 84:1-8
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
St. Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
St. Luke 2:41-52
St. Matthew 2:1-12

Background:  Sundays after Christmass

The Sundays after Christmass seem to be unsure as to what they might need to be.  Last Sunday’s Gospel is a repeat (or rather an expansion) of the Gospel for the Third Christmass Liturgy.  I was somewhat envious while watching a Roman Catholic Mass for that Sunday which honors the Holy Family.  Rather than floundering about with “low” Sundays following Christmass, it takes up the theme of the context of Jesus’ birth and the Church’s life.  One series of readings that is more and more ignored is The Holy Name (1 January) and its powerful readings.  The “Christmas” fatigue of our culture at this point seems not to allow us the celebration of these days, which is a sad fact. The Gospel for the Holy Family is one of the options open to us this morning.  In fact, there are three options.  The First, St. Matthew 2:13-15,19-23, looks back to the Roman readings for the previous Sunday, and it presents a bit of chronological confusion in that it anticipates the readings for The Holy Innocents, which was celebrated on 28 December.  The Second, a reading from St. Luke 2:41-52, follows after the reading for The Presentation of Our Lord (2 February), and the final option, St. Matthew 2:1-12, anticipates the Gospel for the coming Epiphany which will be celebrated on Monday this year.  Which to use?  If you are not celebrating The Epiphany on its day (6 January) then you might want to consider the third option.  If you want to stick to the readings for this day, then I would recommend the second option.  It most fully fits with the other readings for this day.

A blessed New Year to you.

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.

This pericope from the so-called “Book of Consolation” seems to be mainly addressed to the Northern Kingdom.  The clues are in the phrase “the remnant of Israel” and in the proclamation about Ephraim being “my firstborn.”  Some commentators attribute these sayings to a very young Jeremiah enjoying the hope of the reunion of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms during the reign of Josiah (641-609 BCE).  Some of the expressions of hope, the return of a wandering people, the blooming wasteland, and the straight path all seem to anticipate Second Isaiah.  Regardless, the attention given to the north, and the tone of joy seem to fit the second option Gospel for the day.  It seems that the Holy Family models Jeremiah’s greatest hope – that all might return to Jerusalem.

Breaking open Jeremiah:

1.     Why did Jeremiah hope that Israel would return to Jerusalem?
2.     What is the difference between wandering and being a pilgrim?
3.     Have you ever done either?

Psalm 84 or 84:1-8 Quam dilecta!

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

Again, in the Psalm we seem to have a natural affiliation with the second option Gospel.  The opening line, “How lovely your dwellings, O Lord of armies,” seems to reflect the actions of the Holy Family as they make their way to Jerusalem.  All of creation yearns to be there, even the smallest of creatures such as the sparrow.  Of notice are the pilgrims who make their way to the Temple, “whose hears are set on the pilgrims’ way.”  It seems to reflect Jeremiah’s hopes in the First Reading as well.  Later verses are also reflective of the reading from Jeremiah, “Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs.”  The view quickly turns from the wasteland that a pilgrim would experience, as a way would be made from the Jordan River valley, to the actual walls of the city.  “They will climb from height (rampart, or “strength”) to height.”  The remaining verses are a paean to the God of Israel who is a “shield”, and a “sun”.  This verse provides a mixed context of “king” and “God”.  Jerusalem not only speaks of the strength of the king, but of God’s rule as well.

Breaking open Psalm 84:
  1. What does it mean to yearn for something?
  2. Does your religious life or worship life ever cause you to yearn?  For what?
  3. What strengths does your religious life give you?

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

This reading from Ephesians, in the midst of honoring the Christ child, casts a glance in the believer’s direction as well.  Jesus is envisioned as the one pre-existent from the “foundation of the world.”  Quickly, however, the author reminds his readers that they were also destined – “destined…for adoption.”  In this way the author greets his readers, focusing on their common belief in the Christ, and in their common inheritance as God’s children. 

The author then, in the second pericope of this reading, plants the addressees of this letter in the heart of his own prayer; “I do not cease to give thanks for you.” There develops a “cloud” of witness, testimony, and wisdom – and a desire for all to know this one who stands at the beginning of all things so that hearts may be enlightened, and that all may begin to know the hope (again Jeremiah?) to which Jesus calls those who wish to follow him.  This is the inheritance – a richness of inclusion and adoption.  In a way the notion of the Holy Family is expanded here to include all of us.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How important is your family history to you?
  2. How do you “belong” to your family?
  3. How do you “belong” to God?

St. Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

In this option we return to Matthew’s Birth Narrative, but with the incident with the Innocents elided.  It is here that we see Matthew’s agenda of using the Hebrew Scriptures to explain the nature of Jesus.  We have already met Joseph the dreamer (named for his forbearer?) and we have retold to us the elements of the Moses story in which Pharaoh demands the execution of the first born of Israel.  Thus Jesus follows in a people’s history, follows in their slavery, and in their liberation from Egypt.  Kingship rears its ugly head and reaction in the behaviors of both Pharaoh and Herod.  It is the dreams of Joseph that drives the Holy Family from these terrors into the safety of Nazareth.  Again, in the final verse “He will be called a Nazorean”, Matthew infers a connection, but to what.  We don’t know whom it was that the Matthean tradition was connecting with, nor do we know the exact translation of “nzr”.  Might it have been “Nazareth”, or might it have been “Nazirite”.  Either is a rich possibility for interpreting and enriching the text.  What must not be forgotten here are two foci, the strength of the dream, and in spite of the “historical” connections, the integrity of the person of Jesus.

Breaking open Gospel option 1:
  1. What role do dreams play in your life?
  2. How does God speak to you?
  3. How do you make decisions in your religious life? 

St. Luke 2:41-52

Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

This reading provides another sense of commentary on the Holy Family.  Here Jesus seeks a sense of the Family to which he was destined to belong.  This is done in the midst of Joseph and Mary’s faithfulness to the traditions of Israel.  In following these traditions, Jesus becomes a pilgrim with them, and a seeker after and giver of knowledge.  They go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Is this Luke’s attempt to do what Matthew does in his tale of the Flight into Egypt (see above)?  It certainly places Jesus in a context, in a human family.  Here, however, Luke begins to comment on who it is the Jesus really is.  It is signaled to us in the phrase, “And all who heard him were amazed,” a standard sign from Luke that Jesus is calling a group or an individual to belief.  It is used of the parents as well, “When his parents saw him they were astonished” It is a beginning but does not exhibit the full understanding.  None-the-less, Jesus continues to be obedient, and Mary continues to ponder and treasure.

Breaking open Gospel option 2:
  1. How have you differentiated yourself from your family?
  2. What are Jesus’ motives here?
  3. What are the motives of Joseph and Mary?

St. Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

This text has become so conflated with the Lucan Birth Narrative, that it might be good to separate the two.  Indeed one commentator (Albright/Mann) deems it more of a parable than a history.  What then are the elements that Matthew uses? First of all, there is the outsider.  We don’t know from whence the Magi came.  Were they Semitic?  Perhaps they were, or perhaps they came from some other race.  Does the tradition use this story to anticipate the ministry to the Gentiles?  Probably it does not.

 The other element is astrology.  Denounced in most of the Hebrew Scripture, astrology did have a place in inter-testamental Palestine.  There is plenty of archaeological evidence of the use of the zodiac and the influence of the stars, perhaps an on-going influence of Babylonian and Persian origin.  Matthew’s point here is that the birth of the child is a significant event, and its significance expands beyond the usual influence of such a birth.  Here Jesus is discoverable and knowable. Perhaps the Magi offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the tools of astrologers, because having seen the child, they no longer need them. 

Usually when Matthew connects and event, saying, or story to quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase, “that it might be fulfilled” is used to tie the quotation to the event.  In the story of the Magi, there is no such connection.  If these quotations are used as a parabolic device, then the commentator, reader and preacher must search for what it was that Matthew truly intended in preserving this tradition. 

Breaking open Gospel option 3:
1.      What do the Magi represent to you?
2.      What gifts might you have brought to the Christ child?
3.      How is this story lived out today?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2013, 2014 Michael T. Hiller


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