Christmas Day I, II, and III

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Christmas Day I, II, and III )Dec. 25, 2022)

(Lectionary Selections I, II, and III are suggested for use for Christmas Eve midnight, Christmas dawn, and the main service on Christmas Day.).

Christmas Day I

First Reading, Selection I: Isaiah 9:2-7

Adoration of the shepherds

Adoration of the shepherds (1622). Oil painting on canvas by Gerard van Honthorst (1590–1656), Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

Christmas has come! We see a great light and sing a new song as we behold with joy in the city of David the birth of a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. In our first reading, we hear words of the prophet Isaiah that would inspire the composer George Frideric Handel in “The Messiah.” The prophet foretells a glorious future when the oppressor’s yoke will be broken and a child will be born for us, a son given to us, a Wonderful Counsellor will take the throne of David: Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Psalm, Selection I: Psalm 96

All the earth sings a new song, blessing God’s name in this joyous psalm of praise. There is fascinating theology here, ideas that we may see reflected in the New Testament: We are called to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation; we are to go out and declare God’s glory, a great commission to show God’s majesty to all the nations. The whole earth, the heavens, the seas, the forests and all that is in them rejoice before our God.

Second Reading, Selection I: Titus 2:11-14

Here’s a Bible trivia fact: Titus is the only book of the New Testament that does not appear in the regular three-year Lectionary of Sunday service readings. We read in it only on Christmas Day. Much of Titus’ short letter is spent warning the people of Crete to rein in their sinful behavior, an instruction that leads to a worthy conclusion: We should live well and renounce bad actions as we wait for the grace of God through Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us and make us God’s people.

Gospel, Selection I: Luke 2:1-14(15-20

Now we come to the familiar Gospel story of Jesus’ birth. On this day we read the nativity according to Luke. We hear the memorable stories of Mary giving birth, wrapping the child in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger in Bethlehem – the City of David – because there was no room in the inn. Here we have the beautiful scene of baby Jesus and his parents suddenly surrounded by shepherds and their flocks. Angels sing gloriously overhead while the Lord’s angel tells them that the baby is a Savior and the Messiah.

Christmas Day II

First Reading, Selection II: Isaiah 62:6-12

In this reading from Isaiah, the people’s exile is ending. Through the power of God’s strong right hand and mighty arm, they will return to Jerusalem. Prepare the way, build up the highway toward home and clear it of stones, the prophet shouts. No longer shall enemies harvest Zion’s grain and drink its wine. God will bring a glorious future of redemption and salvation that will last until the end of time.

Psalm, Selection II: Psalm 97

God is king, and all creation rejoices. This Psalm praises God in an image of power and might that echoes the fearsome God who led the Israelites through the desert and protected them there, surrounded by clouds, lightning and fire. This psalm shows us a God over all other gods, over all other nations, but it also reveals a God who loves the righteous, provides light for them, and cares for those who live justly.

Second Reading, Selection II: Titus 3:4-7

In this passage, Titus emphasizes that Jesus is God, our savior, the perfect manifestation of goodness and loving-kindness. Jesus saved us not because of any good that we had done, but entirely because he is merciful, giving us God’s grace through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Justified by God’s grace, we become heirs to eternal life through Jesus.

Gospel, Selection II: Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

Here again is the familiar Gospel story of Jesus’ birth, the nativity according to Luke. This passage tells us the memorable accounts of Mary giving birth, wrapping the child in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger in Bethlehem – the City of David – because there was no room in the inn. Here we have the beautiful scene of baby Jesus and his parents suddenly surrounded by shepherds and their flocks. Angels sing gloriously overhead while the Lord’s angel tells them that the baby is a Savior and the Messiah.

Christmas Day III

First Reading, Selection III: Isaiah 52:7-10

Israel’s exile in Babylon is ending in this selection from Isaiah, and God’s messenger brings good news of peace and salvation. When God leads the people back to Zion, the temple on the mountain, Jerusalem, even the ruins of the devastated city will break into song. Such is the joy of God’s return to the holy city: God reigns, the people are comforted, and all the nations shall see the power of God’s holy arm and the salvation that it brings.

Psalm, Selection III: Psalm 98

This Psalm of praise, filled with joyous music, harps, trumpets and horns, calls us to stand up and rejoice. We sing a new song of praise for the victory won by God’s mighty right hand and holy arm. All the nations, not only Israel, shout with joy. Even the sea, the land, the rivers and the hills will rejoice when God comes to judge all the world with righteousness and equity. Lift up your voice! Rejoice and sing!

Second Reading, Selection III: Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12)

The letter to the Hebrews begins with a beautifully poetic description of Jesus: Chosen as the son of God, he is the perfect reflection of God’s glory, higher even than the angels. Indeed, the author of Hebrews tells us, when Jesus was born into the world, multitudes of angels appeared in the heavens to worship him. Because Jesus loved righteousness and hated wickedness, his throne is for ever and ever, and God speaks to us no longer through the prophets but through Christ.

Gospel, Selection III: John 1:1-14

There is no nativity story in John’s Gospel. Luke and Matthew, each in their own way, tell us a version of the familiar story of the newborn baby born in Bethlehem. But John introduces us to Jesus in a completely different way: This poetic and spiritual passage celebrates the unimaginable glory of God’s own word becoming flesh and living among us, lighting up the world. The Word that was in the beginning with God, when God said, “Let there be light,” is now, will be, and in God’s time always has been, incarnate as human flesh, Jesus, Messiah, God with us.

Advent 3A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Dec. 11, 2022 (Advent 3A)

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday. We light the one pink candle in the Advent wreath. We pause in the quiet anticipation of Advent as we feel joy at the coming celebration of Jesus’s birth. Our Lectionary readings for Advent subtly shift in tone from quiet expectation toward anticipatory joy, too.

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (c.1589), oil painting on panel by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516). Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid. (Click image to enlarge.)

The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent hold up themes of joy and service, beginning in the first reading with Isaiah’s prophetic voice of hope for the people’s return home to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom … rejoice with joy and singing,” the prophet foretells. And this promise of joy is directed specifically to the oppressed, the weak, those who suffer pain … all those who Jesus would later call us to serve.

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9

Psalm 146, titled “Praise the Lord, O My Soul,” is a resounding hymn of praise for our Creator, the God eternal who made heaven, earth, the seas and all that is in them. Its poetic words of promise shout that the oppressed will receive justice from God. God will feed the hungry, set prisoners free, care for strangers, orphans and widows, and give sight to the blind. All this foreshadows the words that Mary will sing in the Magnificat (which is also available as an alternate Psalm on this Sunday). We hear them echo again whenever Jesus describes God’s Kingdom on earth.

Alternate Psalm: Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55)

As an alternative to a Psalm this Sunday we may sing Luke’s Song of Mary. If you think of the mother of Jesus as a sweet, submissive figure, take a closer look at the words this teen-aged Palestinian woman sings when the angel tells her she would be the mother of God: “ … he has scattered the proud … brought down the powerful … lifted up the lowly … filled the hungry with good things … sent the rich away empty.” This understanding of the divine links Torah and the Gospels. It describes the action that Jesus explicitly asks of those who follow his way.

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Sunday’s Lectionary selection for the second reading breaks in a bit awkwardly in the middle of a thought: “Be patient, therefore” prompts us to wonder what came before. If we turn back a few verses to find context, we discover James – like Mary in the Canticle – excoriating the rich, or more specifically, the selfish rich. “you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Then we hear James’s command: Love each other, and be generous with one another, lest we be judged.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

The Gospel according to Matthew consistently emphasizes that Jesus is Messiah, the lord and savior whom the prophets foretold. Here Matthew tells of a long-distance conversation through messengers between Jesus and John the Baptist in prison. Matthew invokes a passage from Isaiah’s gospel as a way to declare that John is God’s messenger who makes straight the way for Jesus, the Messiah. Then, as John’s messengers leave, Jesus tells the crowd of people what to expect, echoing the ideas in his mother’s song: “… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Pentecost 23C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Nov. 13, 2022 (Pentecost 23C)

First Reading (Track One): Isaiah 65:17-25

The six-month-long, green-vested season of Sundays after Pentecost is drawing to its close. Jesus and his followers have reached Jerusalem, where we will hear him foretell the destruction of the Temple amid apocalyptic warnings of hard times to come before God brings them into eternal life.

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem (1637), oil painting on canvas by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Click image to enlarge.)

Listen through the day’s readings for themes of progress through and beyond suffering. In our Track One first reading, from near the end of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet celebrates the people’s return from exile and exults in God’s plan for the new Jerusalem as a joy and a delight. It will be a city where there is no weeping, no distress; no death in childbirth, no pain; rather, its inhabitants will lead joyous lives with 100 years of youthful strength! Then, at the end, it will be a holy place of peace, where the lion and the lamb rest together and none shall hurt or destroy.

First Reading (Track Two): Malachi 4:1-2a

This short Track Two first reading is from the book of Malachi, the last of the twelve so-called minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. These verses begin its fourth and final chapter. Malachi – whose name in Hebrew means “Messenger,” the word also used for “angel” – speaks of a people newly returned from exile, warning that the great day of the Lord is coming. In language that may remind us of the apocalyptic tone of the gospel, Malachi warns that God will separate evildoers from the righteous and destroy those who do evil. Those who revere God’s name, however, will have healing and joy, “leaping like calves from the stall.”

Psalm (Track One): Isaiah 12:2-6 (Canticle 9 BCP)

These verses from earlier in Isaiah, read as our Track One Psalm for Sunday, are familiar to Episcopalians as Canticle 9, pulled out as a chant to be used in Morning Prayer. The prophet knows that the destruction of the Temple is inevitable, yet nevertheless declares God our stronghold and our sure defense. God can be trusted to save us, the prophet sings, even in threatening times when we feel frightened and vulnerable.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 98

In harmony with the prophet Malachi’s vision of God as a righteous healer, Sunday’s Track Two Psalm envisions God as fair and just judge of the world and all its people. When God comes to judge the earth we will sing a new song, lift up our voices, and express our joy so abundantly that even the sea, the lands, the rivers and the hills will jump up and join the celebration. God’s righteousness will be known to all the nations.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Think about these harsh words from our second reading: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” We have probably heard people express similar thoughts about poor people in a modern political setting, a point of view that might make Jesus weep. This illustrates the problem with taking points from the letters of Paul (and in this case, a later follower) as firm instruction for us today. Written in Paul’s name to address issues in a specific community a generation after Paul’s death, this instruction surely dealt with a particular problem of church members who were taking advantage of others’ work. In no way should this quarrel among first century Greek Christians suggest that Jesus’s instruction to feed the hungry and care for the poor has been repealed.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

It is tempting, but wrong, to interpret scary readings about apocalyptic events and final judgement as prophesies about our present time. As the long season of Pentecost ends and Advent draws near, we will be hearing more of these in our Sunday readings. The evangelist we know as Luke wrote this Gospel around the end of the first century, some 70 years after the Crucifixion and 30 years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. He frames these events as a lesson from Jesus, bearing a truth for all times: God is with us. Even when we’re betrayed, scorned, hated and hurt, “By our endurance we will gain our souls.”

Pentecost 20C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Oct. 23, 2022 (Pentecost 20C)

First Reading (Track One): Joel 2:23-32

Joel ranks as a very minor prophet, and we don’t hear from him often in the three-year Lectionary cycle. The book that bears his name is only three chapters long, and modern bible scholars aren’t even sure when he lived. We do know that “Joel” means “The Lord is God” in Hebrew; and the best hypothesis is that Joel prophesied after the return to Jerusalem from exile.

De Farizeeër en de tollenaar (The Pharisee and the publican, 1661)

De Farizeeër en de tollenaar (The Pharisee and the publican, 1661), oil painting on canvas by Barent Fabritius (1624-1673). The parable, originally painted for the Lutheran church in Leiden, The Netherlands, is presented in three scenes: In the middle the Pharisee kneels before the altar, on the left the proud Pharisee leaves the temple with a devil, on the right the tax collector leaves the temple with an angel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (Click image to enlarge.)

While his prophecy is brief, however, it offers meaning and comfort that lasts through the ages. Even when terrible things happen, says the prophet, God is with us. Feast will follow famine, for God loves us and will pour out God’s spirit on us. Trust in God, be glad and rejoice, and do not fear. Listen for variations on this theme of hope throughout Sunday’s readings.

First Reading (Track Two): Sirach 35:12-17

The first of two options for the Track Two first reading this week is taken from the book of Sirach. This short text, from the books known as Apocrypha at the end of the Hebrew Bible, is also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, and it was renamed Ecclesiasticus in the time of the Emperor Constantine. Its text sums up God’s teaching (“Torah”) in the brisk, memorable style of biblical wisdom literature. Sunday’s verses envision God as judge over all: a judge who is impartial in dispensing justice. Even so, the prophet tells us, God, as judge, pays special attention to the needs of those who have been wronged, to widows and orphans, to the oppressed who come before the judge with complaints.

Alternate First Reading (Track Two): Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22

From Moses to Jonah, Job and beyond, the prophets are not afraid to argue with God. The idea of mere mortals pushing back against the Divine might seem strange or even disturbing, but it is a powerful way for a prophet to declare the importance of their argument. In Sunday’s alternate Track Two first reading we hear a message of hope that echoes through the day’s Lectionary readings. The Prophet Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have done wrong. But he mounts a powerful argument that the God who made permanent covenant with the people should bring them back home even though they wandered and sinned.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 65

Psalm 65 is well chosen for this time of autumn. A hymn of praise and thanksgiving for earth’s bounty, it echoes the Prophet Joel’s assurances that God will provide us life-giving rain and bountiful harvests even after times of trouble and sin. It also marshals beautiful images of nature and the harvest, painting a lovely word picture of God’s great bounty that is good to hold in our thoughts as Thanksgiving and the holiday seasons draw near.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 84:1-6

In poetic metaphors of birds finding safety in their nests, this short passage from Psalm 84 sings a hymn of trust and praise in a loving God who will protect the people and lead them home. God will watch over, favor and honor those who have trust. As God provides nests for the small birds, the Psalmist sings, so will God provide for all of us. Just as God provides pools of water that serve thirsty travelers, so will God hear all our prayers.

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Although this lovely passage is written as Paul’s last testament, it is fair to note that this letter was actually written in Paul’s name by a later follower, years after Paul and Timothy had passed on. The letter evokes the thoughts of Paul for early Christians at a time when Roman persecution was relatively widespread. Through that lens we can get an idea of the young church’s intent to stand strong even when some supporters are deserting the cause. Proclaim the good news, the author of this letter urges the flock, and you can count on God’s strength and God’s protection.

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

This passage from Luke’s Gospel follows immediately after last Sunday’s narrative about the corrupt judge and the persistent widow who would not leave him alone until justice was served. It is good to read the two parables together to get a clear picture of what Luke is trying to tell us about Jesus and prayer. Like the powerful but corrupt judge who fails to prevail against the honest widow, the overly proud Pharisee fails to exalt himself, while the despised tax collector goes home justified because his prayer was humble and sincere.

Pentecost 2C

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for June 19, 2022 (Pentecost 2C)

First Reading (Track One): 1 Kings 19:1-15

The long season after Pentecost with its green vestments and altar colors now begins. In the past six months we have marked the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now we begin almost six months of following the life and works of Jesus as told by Luke.

Jesus, the Gerasene, and the Unclean Spirits

Jesus, the Gerasene, and the Unclean Spirits (1594), book plate by Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625). Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. (Click image to enlarge.)

Our Track One first readings during this season will draw from the prophets of the Hebrew bible. We begin with Elijah, a bold prophet who fought the priests of Baal and spoke truth to King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. In this reading we find Elijah fleeing an angry Jezebel’s revenge, worn down and afraid. Fighting despair, he hides under a broom tree and begs God to take his life. But God has other plans, and sends winds, an earthquake and fire to get Elijah back to God’s work.

First Reading (Track One): Isaiah 65:1-9

We now return to the long season after Pentecost. Although this was once called “ordinary time,” we should not think of it as a less important liturgical season than the Incarnation at Christmas or the Resurrection at Easter: Now the life and works of Jesus come to the fore. In our Track Two first reading we are close to the end of Isaiah’s long book of prophecy. The prophet has called on God to withhold anger, even though the people have broken the covenant and behaved badly. God responds: Those who have been rebellious, who have provoked God’s anger, earned punishment. But that punishment will be just and righteous: “I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” A remnant will remain to inherit Zion, God’s holy hill.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 42 and 43

In two Psalms in sequence we hear poetic language, filled with lamentation but ending in hope and faith. The Psalmist’s soul longs for God as a deer longs for water. His soul thirsts for God. But when faith falters, the Psalmist asks over and over why God has forgotten him. Finally faith wins as he begs God to send out God’s light and truth, and lead him to God’s holy hill.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 22:18-27

In praiseful phrases that sound a distant echo to God’s response to Isaiah’s plea, this passage from Psalm 22 calls on God to stay close to the people, to protect them from danger, from the sword and from wild animals. All the congregation, praise the Lord, the Psalmist prays: Let Israel stand in awe of God and know that God works justice and righteousness for all who seek and praise God, particularly the hungry poor who come seeking protection and food.

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29

In this beautifully worded letter to the predominantly Gentile Christian community of Galatia, near what is now Ankara, Turkey, Paul makes a strong plea: You Gentiles are welcome in this young but growing church. You need not strictly follow the laws of Judaism. You need not keep kosher nor be circumcised. Gentiles are in no way second-class Christians, Paul proclaims, in beautiful, inclusive language that echoes through the ages: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Jesus. All are heirs to God’s covenant with Abraham.

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

This passage from Luke’s Gospel must have made its original audience laugh, with its allusions to the hated Roman army in the name of the demon, “Legion,” residing in a naked man living among tombs with swine, a litany of conditions that they would have considered unclean. When Jesus begins a conversation with the demons, they bargain with him, asking to be cast into the swine, which then charge into the sea and drown. This obviously does not sit well with the herd of swine’s owners, who ask Jesus to go away. And then the now-healed man wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go back to his people instead and tell them what God has done. What’s going on in this strange story? Perhaps Luke wants us to see clearly, as Paul did in Galatians, that God’s love is unlimited and available to all.

Lent 3C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 20, 2022 (Lent 3C)

First Reading: Exodus 3:1-15

Scripture offers us scores of images and metaphors to help us visualize a God who is beyond our imagining. It is no surprise that its efforts to portray some small sense of God’s power sometimes stretch our imagination.

The Gardener and the Fig Tree

The Gardener and the Fig Tree from Luke 13:1-9; stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland in Dungarvan, Waterford County, Ireland. (Click image to enlarge.)

One such image is fire. God led the Israelites in the wilderness as a pillar of fire and column of smoke, and, as we hear in Sunday’s first reading, God surprises Moses by speaking out of a bush that burns and burns but is not consumed. The people have suffered enough in slavery in Egypt, God says. Moses receives God’s call to lead the people out of slavery to a promised land that flows with milk and honey.

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

The Psalmist creates the striking metaphor of a voice crying out in the wilderness. The one who speaks – traditionally said to be David in the Wilderness of Judah – is alone and thirsty, yet nevertheless they trust in God. Even in a barren and dry and probably scary place where there is no water, their souls thirst not for mere liquid refreshment but for God: God’s loving-kindness is better than life itself. Even in hard times we trust in God, finding comfort under the shadow of God’s wings, held in God’s strong right hand.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

In verses that draw together the themes of Sunday’s First Reading, Psalm and Gospel, Paul reminds his audience that many of the Israelites died in the wilderness. He argues that these bad things happened because God was not pleased with them. Recalling lessons from Exodus, Paul urges the people of Corinth not to practice idolatry, an issue that frequently arose among this community’s formerly pagan Christians. Don’t put Christ to the test, Paul warns. Don’t complain. These things happened to our ancestors to serve as an example to us, Paul wrote, reminding the people to be faithful during hard times: God will provide strength.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

Pilate had murdered a group of Galileans in grisly fashion, and more people had died unexpectedly when a tower fell. A crowd clustered around Jesus, worried. Why did these bad things happen to good people, they asked. Were these people punished because they had sinned? God does not punish sin with suffering, Jesus told them. But repentance – turning away from bad behavior – brings forgiveness and eternal life. Then Jesus told them a parable about a gardener who allowed a barren fig tree one more year of nurturing in hope it would bear fruit. Like the fig tree in this story, Jesus tells the crowd, it’s best to repent and wait for God’s forgiveness and another chance.

Last Epiphany C/Transfiguration

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Radiant light shines through Sunday’s readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and Moses appears in all four of them.

Transfiguration of Christ

Transfiguration of Christ (c.1487), oil painting on panel by Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516).
National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

Take a closer look, and find a consistent emphasis on God’s covenant with the people to follow God’s commandments to love God and our neighbors. In the first reading, we see Moses bringing the commandments down the mountain, his face transfigured in light by his encounter with the Holy One.

Psalm: Psalm 99

This mighty ancient hymn envisions God as a powerful king receiving loud chants of praise. In the temple in Jerusalem, images of two cherubim – scary angels depicted as lions with wings and human faces – were placed atop the Ark of the Covenant to serve as God’s throne. The Psalmist understands God as no petty tyrant but a mighty ruler who demands justice, holding the people to their covenant call to love their neighbors and care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

In his second known letter to his congregation at Corinth, Paul recalls the Exodus story about Moses coming down the mountain with his face shining. Invoking the the image of the veil that Moses used to conceal his transcendent glow, Paul turns it around to express the idea that Jesus “unveils” God’s covenant in all its shining glory. For those who believer in Christ, Paul says, the veil is removed and they can see the image of God as if reflected in a mirror by the Holy Spirit. Be truthful, Paul urges the believers in Corinth. Do not hide behind a veil, but be steadfast and bold.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

Jesus and his apostles Peter, John and James go up on the mountain to pray. Suddenly Elijah and Moses join him, and Jesus’ face and clothing shine in dazzling light. The three, the Gospel says, were talking about Jesus’ departure (or exodus in the perhaps significant Greek original), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Then a cloud forms around them and God’s voice is heard, repeating the words that God spoke from a cloud at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for the first Sunday of Epiphany: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Jesus and the terrified apostles come down from mountain, and life returns to what is normal for Jesus: He astounds the crowd by casting out a child’s angry demon.

Advent 4C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Dec. 19, 2021

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

God’s liberating preference for the poor and the oppressed is made manifest in Sunday’s readings. This may seem to be an unusual theme for the last week in Advent, with Christmas drawing near.

The Annunciation

The Annunciation (c.1590-1603), oil painting on canvas by El Greco (1541-1614). Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. (Click image to enlarge.)

In reality, though, it is a deeply significant message for the impending birth of Jesus: Jesus will go on to care for the poor, the hungry, the ill and imprisoned and oppressed as the central focus of his good news. Our readings begin with Micah, one of the earliest Old Testament prophets. In previous verses, Micah has warned the people of Jerusalem that their injustices against the weak and the poor will bring down God’s wrath. Now we hear the prophet foretell that a new ruler is to come from Bethlehem – the birthplace of King David – to reunite Israel’s remnant as a shepherd leads his flock, under God’s protection in peace.

Psalm: Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46b-55)

Mary’s song of praise, The Magnificat, may either be sung as a psalm this Sunday, or it may be read as the second portion of Sunday’s Gospel. In this beloved song as told by Luke, the pregnant Mary sings grateful praise for God. She rejoices in all that God has done for her. She celebrates the powerful yet merciful God who loves us and calls us to acts of mercy and justice. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, she sings. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. God’s justice is restorative – God will take from those who have much and give to those who have none.

Alternate Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7

We sing the first seven of Psalm 80’s nineteen verses on Sunday. The Psalm was probably either written during a time of exile and destruction or recalls that time. The place names invoked in the second verse suggest that this hymn recalls the loss of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. In tones of sorrow, the Psalmist calls on Israel’s God to come and help, to restore the people who, in a memorable metaphor, have been fed with the bread of tears and given tears to drink. Although the people have suffered derision, laughter and scorn from their enemies, including their own neighbors, the Psalm expresses confidence that the light of God’s own countenance can save them.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

The Letter to the Hebrews, modern biblical scholars say, was probably written late in the first century, after the Temple was destroyed. At that time, early Christianity was separating from rabbinical Judaism amid anger and pain on both sides. Because Christianity was suffering persecution at the hands of Rome, many Jewish converts to Christianity were returning to the safer confines of Judaism. Much of Hebrews seems intended to reach backsliding Jewish Christians by comparing Judaism unfavorably to Christianity. Sunday’s reading declares that that God abolished the “empty” sacrifices of the Jewish Temple, replacing them and sanctifying us once and for all with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We would do well to discard this view of Judaism as “abolished,” hearing instead the hopeful message that God’s promise to Israel at Sinai continues for us too.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45

This lovely short reading from Luke’s Gospel comes immediately before the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which we heard earlier. Here we are told of Mary’s visit to her much older cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant – Elizabeth with John, Mary with Jesus – and both conceived in miraculous ways, visited by angels with the news that they would give birth. When the women meet, Elizabeth feels her child leap in her womb with what she perceives as joy. Suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth declares Mary blessed among women. “Why has this happened to me,” Elizabeth wonders in amazement, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Then, in the following verses, Mary responds with the Magnificat.

Christ the King B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Nov. 21, 2021

First Reading (Track One): 2 Samuel 23:1-7

After six months, the long season of Sundays after Pentecost, with the focus of its Gospels on Jesus and his life and works, comes to its end with the feast of Christ the King, a feast also sometimes less patriarchally called “The Reign of Christ.”

Christ Before Pilate Again

Christ Before Pilate Again (1308-1311), detail of tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

Sunday’s readings appropriately focus on kings and kingdoms. Our Track One first reading, which may have been written in David’s memory long after his death, declares David God’s favorite: a just ruler through whom the God of Israel speaks. God has made an everlasting covenant with David, we hear, a covenant that will bring prosperity to his reign and success to all David’s descendants.

First Reading (Track Two): Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Sunday’s readings all shine a light on ideas of God as King, from the mighty celestial ruler imagined in the Track Two first reading from Daniel to John’s Gospel vision of the Jesus on trial, king of a very different realm. Daniel portrays an Ancient One, hair and gown in snowy white, seated on a fiery throne and served by thousands, judging all humanity. This transcendent figure sends out a human messiah to rule as king over all the nations, holding everlasting dominion that shall never be destroyed.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19)

Sunday’s Track One Psalm echoes the spirit of the first reading about God’s covenant to bless King David and to bring prosperity to him and to his descendants. Remembering the hardships that David endured in keeping his oath to God, the Psalmist vows not to rest until Israel builds a temple on Mount Zion, a dwelling place on earth where God can rest. If Israel’s children keep the covenant that their kingly ancestor made with God, the psalm goes on, then Israel will sit on David’s throne forever.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 93

Written in an age when earthly kings held real and ultimate power over their people, this mighty hymn of praise portrays God as a king among kings from time before time: God is king! God is majestic! God is powerful! Unlike earthly kings, the Psalmist sings, God’s world is certain, immovable and mighty. God’s kingdom will endure, sure and holy, forever and evermore.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8

This, the first page of Revelation, reveals the secret of this mysterious book: It is not a strange and frightening prediction of the End Times. It does not conceal coded information about our times, or any other time or place. Nope! It was a subversive sermon intended for persecuted Christians in the seven cities in Asia Minor (now Western Turkey). It carried this simple message: God our King, who was with us at the beginning and will be with us at the end, loves us and frees us from our sins through Jesus Christ. In words that echo the Daniel reading, we hear that Jesus our Savior, God, ruler of all the kings of the earth, will come back with the clouds to deliver justice.

Gospel: John 18:33-37

Jesus, facing the final hours before his death by crucifixion, has been handed over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Soon Jesus will wear a mocking, painful king’s crown made of thorns. But Pilate’s concern is political: Has this rabbi declared himself king? That would be an act of treason against Rome’s all-powerful emperor: a capital offense. When Jesus finally answers, clearly and firmly, “My kingdom is not of this world,” Pilate remains puzzled. Jesus stakes his claim to a kingdom and claims his kingship, but “not from here,” adding that he came into the world to testify to the truth. In following verses, Pilate will wash his hands of this troubling matter, but the crowds will have their way.