Archive for the 'Canticles' Category

For March 23, 2014: The Annunciation, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-14

With the kingdom of Judah caught between powerful enemies, King Ahaz seeks an alliance with Assyria in defiance of the promise from God that Isaiah has given him. In a reading that is familiar from Advent and Christmas, the Lord offers to prove that the Lord’s intentions are good—but Ahaz refuses.

The Response            Canticle 15

King Ahaz was asked to trust God for an outcome that looked uncertain, and he declined to do so. A girl named Mary, offered a miracle that will turn her life upside down, says yes. Canticle 15, which we know as the Magnificat, is the song of praise that Mary then sings, and the continuation of the gospel for the Annunciation.

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:4-10

Sacrifices and burnt offerings in the Old Testament are intended to atone for sins. Chapter 10 of the book of Hebrews explains how they cannot work. It is Jesus coming to do the will of God that sanctifies us—and in so doing, Jesus gives us a model to follow.

The Gospel            Luke 1:26-38

Like the Old Testament reading and the psalm, this gospel passage is familiar from Advent. Mary, in contrast to King Ahaz, is appropriately perplexed by the angel; she seeks to understand why the angel greets her as he does; and when he gives her a sign, she accepts it and declares her obedience to God’s will.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the feast of the Annunciation play on themes of understanding, obedience, and sacrifice. Ahaz, raised to be a king, nevertheless misunderstands what is being offered and why; he chooses to disobey when obedience would be relatively easy, and the consequence is that he unwittingly sacrifices the good of the nation to his own desperate need to feel in control. Jesus, uniquely begotten by God, understands exactly what the divine plan for the world is and how it involves him; he continually chooses to obey, even to the point of death; and the consequence is that he deliberately sacrifices his own life and human need to feel in control in order to do God’s will in saving even the least of us. Mary, for her part, is the product of a culture that expects her to marry when and how it demands and does not encourage her questions; she nevertheless thinks about what the angel means and asks how things work; and the consequence is that, though she cannot fully foresee all that is being asked of her, she agrees to the potential sacrifice of her good name in the community in order to become the Theotokos—the bearer of God.

Mary is quite rightly held up as a model of human obedience to the Lord—and she questions and ponders. So what if questions and doubts are in fact integral to belief in God? And what if it is this kind of reasoned, questioning human obedience that prepares the way of the Lord?

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For Dec. 16, 2012: 3 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah, a prophet of the seventh century BC, mostly denounces Israel’s corruption and failure to follow God’s ways. In his book, however, is this passage with the remarkable image of God as both warrior and lover, singing out loud for joy in all God’s people and, at the last, bringing them home. Canticle 9 or Isaiah 12:2-6, familiar as an Easter Vigil response, continues to ring out the growing joy of Advent.

The Response            Canticle 9, Isaiah 12:2-6

The Epistle            Philippians 4:4-7

In last week’s epistle, Paul exulted in the Christians at Philippi. In closing the epistle, he sends them out into the world, lovingly challenging them to do four important tasks to open them to the peace of God: rejoice; again, rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray. We do well to pay heed and follow suit.

The Gospel            Luke 3:7-18

 

Further thoughts

Violence has staggered our nation’s heart this Advent tide of 2012: twenty children will not wake on December 25 to bulging stockings and holiday feasts or whatever else their parents had had in store for the day, and six households must cope with the sudden loss of the beloved mother or aunt who made the best latkes or always brought “A Visit from St. Nicholas” most vividly to life in her reading.

But the sword always lies over Christmas—the sword that, as Simeon prophesied, would later pierce Mary’s heart when she saw her son hanging on the cross, the blood that symbolizes the holy days of the protomartyr Stephen on December 26 and John the apostle on December 27; and December 28 is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents whom paranoid Herod, stung by the Wise Men’s word of an infant born to be king, ordered his thugs to slaughter.

Whether one ascribes evil to a literal Satan outside of us or to the abundant flaws and fears within us, it cannot be denied that the powers of darkness are very strong. Under such circumstances, the exultation of Zephaniah and Isaiah sounds much more like wishful thinking than like fulfillment, and it is small wonder that some in our society have called for armed guards to be stationed in every school.

The hard reality is that we cannot possibly muster enough guards to station at every school, every mall, every theatre, every post office, every jogging trail, every lonely stretch of road or inner-city curbside, every public restroom, or every child’s bedroom.

What we can do is what John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah told us to do: repent, share what we have with those who have less, refrain from grasping for more money or for more power over others than is appropriate—in short, to look after one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love one another. Doing so day by day won’t hew down the sick or evil person who is armed and bent on mayhem. But to guide that person not to resort to mayhem in the first place, what better hope have we than practicing the love of Christ?

For Dec. 9, 2012: 2 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

The book of Malachi has news for Jews in Jerusalem after the exile in the fifth century BC: the Lord’s malaki or messenger is coming—and bringing judgment that will burn or scour away impurity to make the priests (the descendants of Levi) righteous. The promise of righteousness is restated in Canticle 16, the prophecy of Zechariah about his son John the Baptist that is taken from Luke 1:68-92.

The Response            Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

The Epistle            Philippians 1:3-11

The first church in Europe was the church that Paul himself founded at Philippi, in northeastern Greece. The beginning of the letter to this church glows with Paul’s pride and joy in the Philippians and with their mutual love. Paul also looks forward to the Philippians’ overflowing love yielding a harvest of righteousness.

The Gospel            Luke 3:1-6

 

Further thoughts

Advent calls us to expect the unexpected, and to do something serious about it.

Because we worship the God of Abraham and of David, we look back to the covenants and the prophecies of the Old Testament. The covenants were to bind our forebears in the faith to God and to each other as God’s own people. Because things did not work out that way, the prophets called God’s people to repentance (and called, and called), foretelling shame and disaster for Israel but also promising salvation through a mighty and righteous king. The book of Malachi does this, though with a twist: the Lord is coming, and sending a messenger first, but neither the messenger nor the king may be exactly who or what was expected—and those to whom the messenger comes are on notice that they may not entirely enjoy the result, for the people who are supposedly holiest (that is, the priests) are in serious need of profound purification.

The prophecy plays out in the New Testament at least as unexpectedly. The speaker in Canticle 16 is Zechariah, priest of Israel; the child about whom he prophesies is the unlooked-for son of his old age, whom we know as John the Baptist. This son of priests grows up not to live comfortably overseeing the offerings of grain and incense and animals in the Temple and making nice with the powerful people of the day that Luke’s gospel lists. Instead, he lives rough in the wilderness until God calls him to preach repentance to all. How much more unexpected could that have been?

Whatever we are doing now to prepare our houses and workplaces for relatives’ visits, cookie exchanges, and holiday parties, the message of Advent is clear: the most important cleaning and preparation that we undertake is in our hearts, no matter the season.