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A Meditation on the Birth of the Lord

Submitted by on Wednesday, 17 December 2008One Comment

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The liturgy of the Catholic Church sets aside December 17-24 as special days of preparation immediately preceding December 25, the solemn feast of the birth day of the Lord. As such these days have a peculiar structure all their own punctuated by the so-called "O Antiphons" with gospel readings chosen from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke and arranged more-or-less chronologically. On the basis of these gospel readings, Old Testament passages have been selected and coordinated with each gospel reading according to a type-anti-type schema.

In the Philippines, this special period within Advent has taken on a particular coloring in that it is subsumed within a string of nine-day Christmas novena masses beginning on December 16 (which is also the beginning of carolling days). The masses are celebrated in the wee hours of the morning (4 AM) and are also called Misa del Gallo, "the mass at cock crow" or, popularly as "Simbang Gabi". Within this series of novena masses, the characteristics of the Roman liturgy for Dec. 17-24 are retained but extended backwards to include December 16. What makes the Simbang Gabi special is the singing of the "Gloria" and the wearing of white vestments in anticipation of Christmas. Thus, the celebration of Christmas in the Philippines actually begins on the 16th of December with a series of masses anticipating the solemnity of Christmas Day.

A meditation on the events directly leading to Christmas

The gospel readings from December 17-24 are arranged more or less chronologically with the readings from Matthew 1:1-25 (December 17-18) given as a kind thematic introduction to the series that climaxes with the birth of Mary’s son in a manger. The purpose of the liturgy is for the Church to meditate on the events that directly lead to the birth of the Messiah. The sequence of the events begin with the annunciation of the good news of John the Baptist’s birth (December 19) going to the census that brings Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, David’s hometown (December 24, Vigil Mass)

The Place of John 5:33-36

For the December 16 reading, John 5:33-36 has a curious place. It shows Jesus in polemics with the Jews who interrogate him on account of his attitude towards the Sabbath. The selection of this passage as an Advent reading is based on verse 35

He (John the Baptist) was a burning and shining lamp,
and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. (John (NAB) 5:35)

The passage, as it is, recalls the reading of the previous Sunday (Year B, Sunday II) where the evangelist describes the way the Baptist considered himself (John 1:6-8.19-27). The key phrase here is in vv. 6-8

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

John was light (John 5:35) but he was not the light that shines on all men (John 1:9); rather, he came to testify to the true light. In other words, John was like the moon reflecting the sun’s light and reminding those in the darkness that when the night passes away, there is a day that dawns with its own glorious light. John 5:35, therefore, with its mention of John’s light and — implicitly — the true light, brings to a close relationship the series of readings that lead to the birth of the Baptist on the one hand, and the series for the birth of the Messiah, on the other. Below is an illustration of how John 5:35 does this:

For a bigger illustration of how the individual readings contribute to the purpose of meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation, go here.

 

Matthew’s Genealogy and the Annunciation to Joseph

In the Church’s lectionary, Matthew 1:1-17 (The Genealogy of Christ) and 1:18-24 (The Annunciation to Joseph) head the series of gospel readings beginning December 17. Remember that the Universal Church begins its special Christmas liturgy on the 17th. Within this schema, the Genealogy and the Annunciation to Joseph cannot be separated since Matthew 1:18-24 is a commentary on verse 17

Jacob was the father of Joseph,
the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.

This is the crucial verse in Matthew’s genealogy: here, the pattern of human fatherhood breaks. Jesus is born of Mary — not Joseph. The legal fatherhood of Joseph, however, the factor that puts Jesus in the lineage of David, is explained in 1:18-24. This latter verse also explains how Mary becomes mother and how Isaiah 7:14 is fulfilled in her motherhood. By putting these two passages at the head of the series of gospel passages that lead to the account of the Lord’s birth, the Church highlights the real intent of the liturgical readings from December 17-24.

The Choice for the Old Testament Readings

The Gospel readings within the series that goes from December 17-24 are the bases for the choice of the readings from the Old Testament. The schema used is that of type and anti-type. A "type" is

A person or thing prefiguring another person or thing. Many of the persons in the Old Testament are "types" of Christ, e.g., Adam (Romans 5:14); and things in the Old Testament are types of things in the New Testament. Thus, Noah’s Ark is a type of the Church (1 Peter 3:20 ff.). That which a type prefigures is called the antitype. The fact that a particular person or thing is a type can be known only by revelation, either from Holy Scripture or from tradition.

Thus, the anti-types found in the Gospel readings are determining factors in the choice of the Old Testament reading. In this sense, Mary’s Magnificat, for example, finds its prefiguration in the thanksgiving of Hannah (cf. 1 Samuel 1:24-28 and 1 Sam 2, the responsorial psalm.) Another example is the reading for December 211 Ordinarily, the reading for December 21 is the first part of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). Since this selection presents Mary as the first missionary, anticipating the apostles and the seventy-two presented in Luke’s gospel, the first reading is taken either from Zephaniah 3:14-18 or Song of Songs 2:8-14. Zephaniah 3:14-18 is an oracle of the joy of the last days. The oracle prefigures Mary’s greeting of "Shalom" to Elizabeth, a symbol of the remnant of Israel awaiting the Lord’s day. The choice for the Song of Songs can be recherche for some, but the reason is simple: for the Fathers of the Church, the passage was interpreted as a symbol of the Bride, the Church, announcing the arrival of her Spouse, Christ. It is in this sense that Augustine quotes some of the lines of this selection in his sermons.

The OT Reading for December 16

It must be noted immediately that the OT reading for December 16 — at least according to the Philippine ORDO — is not directly related to the Gospel reading from John 5:33-36. It’s purpose is to underline the universal aspect of the salvation intended by God. Thus the reading from Isaiah 56:1-8 looks forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles to the people of God. Read in a Christmassy-key, it points to the universal effect of the Incarnation. The Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself the whole of humanity at the moment of the Incarnation thereby — in the words of John Paul II — re-expressing them in His own image.

God Incarnate

The Simbang Gabi series of readings lead to the narrative of Jesus’ birth in a manger. With that scene the Church is reminded that in that small package lying in the manger is all the good that humanity hopes for. Wonderment, gratitude, praise and thanksgiving — all these sentiments are intended to be awakened in the faithful as they contemplate the mystery of God made man. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." God’s saloobin — His own interior life, His thoughts, plans, dreams… — is made manifest in the babe lying in a manger. And it was "for our sake, and for the sake of our salvation" that these have come to pass, so that as God became man, we too — in the words of St. Augustine — may become as God2.

Matthew 1:1-25
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
1The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Judas and his brethren.
3And Judas begot Phares and Zara of Thamar. And Phares begot Esron. And Esron begot Aram.
4And Aram begot Aminadab. And Aminadab begot Naasson. And Naasson begot Salmon.
5And Salmon begot Booz of Rahab. And Booz begot Obed of Ruth. And Obed begot Jesse.
6And Jesse begot David the king. And David the king begot Solomon, of her that had been the wife of Urias.
7And Solomon begot Roboam. And Roboam begot Abia. And Abia begot Asa.
8And Asa begot Josaphat. And Josaphat begot Joram. And Joram begot Ozias.
9And Ozias begot Joatham. And Joatham begot Achaz. And Achaz begot Ezechias.
10And Ezechias begot Manasses. And Manesses begot Amon. And Amon begot Josias.
11And Josias begot Jechonias and his brethren in the transmigration of Babylon.
12And after the transmigration of Babylon, Jechonias begot Salathiel. And Salathiel begot Zorobabel.
13And Zorobabel begot Abiud. And Abiud begot Eliacim. And Eliacim begot Azor.
14And Azor begot Sadoc. And Sadoc begot Achim. And Achim begot Eliud.
15And Eliud begot Eleazar. And Eleazar begot Mathan. And Mathan begot Jacob.
16And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
17So all the generations, from Abraham to David, are fourteen generations. And from David to the transmigration of Babylon, are fourteen generations: and from the transmigration of Babylon to Christ are fourteen generations.
18Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.
19Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.
20But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.
21And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS. For he shall save his people from their sins.
22Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying:
23Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife.
25And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
John 5:33-36
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
33You sent to John, and he gave testimony to the truth.
34But I receive not testimony from man: but I say these things, that you may be saved.
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
36But I have a greater testimony than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to perfect; the works themselves, which I do, give testimony of me, that the Father hath sent me.
John 5:33-36
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
33You sent to John, and he gave testimony to the truth.
34But I receive not testimony from man: but I say these things, that you may be saved.
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
36But I have a greater testimony than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to perfect; the works themselves, which I do, give testimony of me, that the Father hath sent me.
John 1:6-8
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7This man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.
8He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light.
John 5:35
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
John 1:9
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
9That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.
John 5:35
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
John 5:35
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
Matthew 1:1-17
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
1The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Judas and his brethren.
3And Judas begot Phares and Zara of Thamar. And Phares begot Esron. And Esron begot Aram.
4And Aram begot Aminadab. And Aminadab begot Naasson. And Naasson begot Salmon.
5And Salmon begot Booz of Rahab. And Booz begot Obed of Ruth. And Obed begot Jesse.
6And Jesse begot David the king. And David the king begot Solomon, of her that had been the wife of Urias.
7And Solomon begot Roboam. And Roboam begot Abia. And Abia begot Asa.
8And Asa begot Josaphat. And Josaphat begot Joram. And Joram begot Ozias.
9And Ozias begot Joatham. And Joatham begot Achaz. And Achaz begot Ezechias.
10And Ezechias begot Manasses. And Manesses begot Amon. And Amon begot Josias.
11And Josias begot Jechonias and his brethren in the transmigration of Babylon.
12And after the transmigration of Babylon, Jechonias begot Salathiel. And Salathiel begot Zorobabel.
13And Zorobabel begot Abiud. And Abiud begot Eliacim. And Eliacim begot Azor.
14And Azor begot Sadoc. And Sadoc begot Achim. And Achim begot Eliud.
15And Eliud begot Eleazar. And Eleazar begot Mathan. And Mathan begot Jacob.
16And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
17So all the generations, from Abraham to David, are fourteen generations. And from David to the transmigration of Babylon, are fourteen generations: and from the transmigration of Babylon to Christ are fourteen generations.
Matthew 1:18-24
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
18Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.
19Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.
20But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.
21And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS. For he shall save his people from their sins.
22Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying:
23Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife.
Isaiah 7:14
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
14Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.
Romans 5:14
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
14But death reigned from Adam unto Moses, even over them also who have not sinned after the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of him who was to come.
1 Peter 3:20
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
20Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.
1 Samuel 1:24-28
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
24And after she had weaned him, she carried him with her, with three calves, and three bushels of flour, and a bottle of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord in Silo. Now the child was as yet very young:
25And they immolated a calf, and offered the child to Heli.
26And Anna said: I beseech thee, my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord: I am that woman who stood before thee here praying to the Lord.
27For this child did I pray, and the Lord hath granted me my petition, which I asked of him.
28Therefore I also have lent him to the Lord all the days of his life, he shall be lent to the Lord. And they adored the Lord there. And Anna prayed, and said:
Luke 1:39-45
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
39And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda.
40And she entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth.
41And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
42And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
43And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
45And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.
Zephaniah 3:14-18
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
14Give praise, O daughter of Sion: shout, O Israel: be glad, and rejoice with all thy heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
15The Lord hath taken away thy judgment, he hath turned away thy enemies: the king of Israel the Lord is in the midst of thee, thou shalt fear evil no more.
16In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not: to Sion: Let not thy hands be weakened.
17The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, he will save: he will rejoice over thee with gladness, he will be silent in his love, he will be joyful over thee in praise.
18The triflers that were departed from the law, I will gather together, because they were of thee: that thou mayest no more suffer reproach for them.
Song of Songs 2:8-14
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
8The voice of my beloved, behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills.
9My beloved is like a roe, or a young hart. Behold he standeth behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices.
10Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come.
11For winter is now past, the rain is over and gone.
12The flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning is come: the voice of the turtle is heard in our land:
13The fig tree hath put forth her green figs: the vines in flower yield their sweet smell. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come:
14My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, shew me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely.
Zephaniah 3:14-18
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
14Give praise, O daughter of Sion: shout, O Israel: be glad, and rejoice with all thy heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
15The Lord hath taken away thy judgment, he hath turned away thy enemies: the king of Israel the Lord is in the midst of thee, thou shalt fear evil no more.
16In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not: to Sion: Let not thy hands be weakened.
17The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, he will save: he will rejoice over thee with gladness, he will be silent in his love, he will be joyful over thee in praise.
18The triflers that were departed from the law, I will gather together, because they were of thee: that thou mayest no more suffer reproach for them.
John 5:33-36
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
33You sent to John, and he gave testimony to the truth.
34But I receive not testimony from man: but I say these things, that you may be saved.
35He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.
36But I have a greater testimony than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to perfect; the works themselves, which I do, give testimony of me, that the Father hath sent me.
Isaiah 56:1-8
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
1Thus saith the Lord: Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my justice to be revealed.
2Blessed is the man that doth this, and the son of man that shall lay hold on this: that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, that keepeth his hands from doing any evil.
3And let not the son of the stranger, that adhereth to the Lord, speak, saying: The Lord will divide and separate me from his people. And let not the eunuch say: Behold I am a dry tree.
4For thus saith the Lord to the eunuchs, They that shall keep my sabbaths, and shall choose the things that please me, and shall hold fast my covenant:
5I will give to them in my house, and within my walls, a place, and a name better than sons and daughters: I will give them an everlasting name which shall never perish.
6And the children of the stranger that adhere to the Lord, to worship him, and to love his name, to be his servants: every one that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, and that holdeth fast my covenant:
7I will bring them into my holy mount, and will make them joyful in my house of prayer: their holocausts, and their victims shall please me upon my altar: for my house shall be called the house of prayer, for all nations.
8The Lord God, who gathereth the scattered of Israel, saith: I will still gather unto him his congregation.

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  1. During the year 2008, December 21 falls on a Sunday and so the readings for that year follow that of the Sunday readings. []
  2. The theology behind this is totally biblical: Adam and Eve wanted to be as God and so they sinned; Christ, by obeying unto death, made it possible for men to become as God. []

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