Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year A

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfil the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son
and they will call him Emmanuel,

a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home.

Mt 1:18-24

The purpose behind Matthew’s Gospel account is to relate the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth and how it fulfils venerable prophecy. Matthew’s Gospel opens with the details of Jesus’ genealogy. This passage serves to complete this genealogy and highlight that Jesus truly was a descendant of David. Both Mary and Joseph were from the town of Bethlehem, i.e. the House of David.

According to the common opinion of ancient Fathers and theologians of the Church, Mary and Joseph were espoused as the first stage to being formally married. During the time of espousals, the future husband and wife did not live together and saw each other but rarely; they could, however, have sexual intercourse, and any child conceived during this period was not illegitimate, either in public opinion or before the Law. If any one violated another’s spouse they were regarded as an adulterer.

Tradition tells us that from the very beginning of their espousal Mary and Joseph had agreed to make a vow of perpetual virginity, hence Joseph’s shock at discovering that Mary was with child. According to the Law, Mary was liable to be stoned to death. However, Joseph lacked the necessary two witnesses required under the Law. In any case, Joseph preferred to spare Mary any such indignity.

Joseph received comfort from the Angel of the Lord (Gabriel) that the conception of the child in Mary’s womb was due to the Holy Spirit. This is the so-called ‘virgin birth’, or ‘incarnation’ of the Son of God, is evidenced in verses 18, 20, 23 and 25 in this same chapter. ‘Incarnation’ means ‘to take flesh.’ Matthew goes on to make the point that Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit fulfils the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.

The angel assures Joseph that he can take Mary home as his wife and for the expectant child,  “you must name him Jesus“: The name ‘Jesus’, which in Hebrew was ‘Yeshu’,  means ‘Yahweh saves’, or ‘Salvation of God’ and originates from the name Joshua. Exclusive to Matthew’s Gospel account is the term ‘Emmanuel’ meaning ‘God with us’ a reminder that this event was the fulfillment of Scripture (Isaiah 7:14). O Come Emmanuel.

First Sunday in Advent – Year A

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.

‘So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’

Mt 24:37-44

The Church has always believed and taught that Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead”, a profession made in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. In this discourse Jesus is emphasising the need to be spiritually prepared for this time of judgement. No one knows the exact ‘hour’ when Jesus will return, however, it could occur at any time.

There is an obvious need to avoid extremes when contemplating matters relating to the ‘end times.’ The first extreme is to assert with certainly that ‘the end is nigh.’ To hold such a belief could lead one to develop a ‘bunker mentality’ that results in withdrawing from the world or neglecting necessary duties. The second extreme is to believe that Christ is never returning or that his return is in the far and distant future.

In Matthew’s Gospel Christ is warning us specifically against this second attitude. To believe that there will never be a parousia or second coming or that Jesus’ return is only a remote possibility in a distant future could cause some to become spiritually self-serving.  Only by ‘staying awake’ can we be truly ready for Christ’s eventual return. Those not ready will be “taken,” that is, swept away, while the righteous will be mercifully spared.

There is a further dimension to Jesus’ warnings. Jesus will not only return at the end of the world, but he also ‘returns’ to each person at the moment of death. Therefore the warning to be ready for Christ’s return is equally as applicable in relation to being ready for our own death. Death, like Jesus’ return, is very much like a ‘thief in the night’ that strikes when we are most unaware. It is important therefore to take heed and remember that while one may not know the time and place of death, for such knowledge rests only with God the Father (Mat 24:36) we should remain awake for this inevitable moment and be spiritually prepared.

Anthony Cleary
Director, Mission & identity

Christ the King – Year C

The people stayed there before the cross watching Jesus. As for the leaders, they jeered at him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers mocked him too, and when they approached to offer him vinegar they said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals hanging there abused him. ‘Are you not the Christ?’ he said. ‘Save yourself and us as well.’ But the other spoke up and rebuked him. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ he said. ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus,’ he said, ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ ‘Indeed, I promise you,’ he replied, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’

Lk 23:35-43

The Kingship of Jesus Christ is a matter not often mentioned in modern times. However, during the time of Jesus most Jews expected that the Messiah would be a king, one who would liberate the nation of Israel from Roman occupation.

Jesus did indeed come as a king but his kingship is of a kingdom that “is not of this world.” Those expecting a warrior messiah who would expel the Romans were disappointed in the young man from the humble town of Nazareth who spoke of peace. Both Jesus’ humility and his rejection of violence were reasons why many rejected him. This is evidenced in the people’s choice of Barabbas over him (Mark 15: 6-15) for Barabbas had led an insurrection against the occupiers and he advocated violent resistance. Some Jews however discerned Jesus’ kingship and the true nature of his kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is the Kingdom of God. Giving testimony to this is the way in which he was greeted upon his entry into Jerusalem, the crowd shouting “blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38).

It is ironic that at the moment of his ultimate rejection, the crucifixion, the kingship is publicly proclaimed and acknowledged. The inscription above Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews”, proclaims his kingdom in three different languages-Hebrew, Greek and Roman – that is, to both Jews and Gentiles. Pilate defiantly refuses to remove this inscription, despite the protest of Jesus’ enemies and advises the Chief Priests “what I have written, I have written” (John 19:21).

Jesus’ kingdom is on offer to all those who repent and believe. There is no ‘time limit’ on its availability. This is seen in the good thief’s repentence. He had led a dissolute life, engaging in petty thievery. However, moments before his death he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness offered for those sinning against him: “Father, forgive them for they know what they do.” These words were a grace that transformed his heart and opened his eyes to see who Jesus really was and what he had to offer; “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Although this was a last-minute conversion by the ‘good thief’ it was one that assured him a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Like the good thief, we too can share in the reward of the Kingdom of Heaven. One hopes, however, that ours is not a last minute conversion but rather that we live a life in which our eyes, ears and hearts are forever opened to Christ the King.

Anthony Cleary,
Director, Mission & Identity

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Yr C

When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was adorned with fine stonework and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ And they put to him this question: ‘Master,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, then, and what sign will there be that this is about to take place?’

‘Take care not to be deceived,’ he said, ‘because many will come using my name and saying, “I am he” and, “The time is near at hand.” Refuse to join them. And when you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not soon.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.

‘But before all this happens, men will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name – and that will be your opportunity to bear witness. Keep this carefully in mind: you are not to prepare your defence, because I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and friends; and some of you will be put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. Your endurance will win you your lives.’

Lk 21:5-19

This account from Luke’s Gospel has become known as the Olivet Discourse, or little Apocalypse, occurring just prior to the passion narrative. Jesus’ discourse, preached on the Mount of Olives, is considered to be a prophecy of the ‘end times’.  More importantly perhaps, this discourse affirms a message that is ageless and enduring i.e. we need to persevere and be faithful in the face of trial and tribulation.

‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ The Olivet Discourse opens with a prophecy foretelling the future destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish worship and sacrifice. Such a dramatic event had occurred once before in 586 BC, when the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar descended upon Jerusalem. This event itself had been prophesised in the stark and dire warnings of the prophet Jeremiah.

In the time of Jesus, the Temple had just undergone a complete renovation, commenced decades earlier by Herod the Great. The structure was now immense, with many of its stones measuring nearly 12 metres in length. According to Jesus, its indestructible appearance is only an illusion and he gives a warning reminiscent of that of Jeremiah. Though he leaves the timing of this future calamity obscure, his words will bear truth within two generations, when Roman armies under Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70-and on August 10th! This was in fact the same day as the destruction wrought by King Nebuchadnezzar. This catastrophe was a historical preview of the end of the world, showing how God’s judgement upon the one nation of Israel prefigures the judgement of all nations.

In the midst of this coming trial, the followers of Jesus must fearlessly persevere despite persecution. Persecution will provide opportunities for Christians to publicly proclaim the gospel. Luke elsewhere recounts several such episodes where believers are locked up in prisons and hauled before kings and governors (Acts 4; 5, 8; 12; 16; 25; 26). Unlike professional orators who rehearse their speeches before delivering them, Christian disciples should only prepare to be faithful. Christ will give them the words through the Holy Spirit. Stephen was an example of this by his powerful witness in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9-10), as were other early Christians (Acts 4; 26). Whilst having apocalyptic overtones, the Olivet Discourse provides a source of hope, for Jesus assures us that anyone who suffers in his name will ultimately be rewarded for “your endurance will win you your lives.”

Anthony Cleary,
Director, Mission & Identity

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – YrC

Some Sadducees – those who say that there is no resurrection – approached Jesus and they put this question to him, ‘Master, we have it from Moses in writing, that if a man’s married brother dies childless, the man must marry the widow to raise up children for his brother. Well, then, there were seven brothers. The first, having married a wife, died childless. The second and then the third married the widow. And the same with all seven, they died leaving no children. Finally the woman herself died. Now, at the resurrection, to which of them will she be wife since she had been married to all seven?’

Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God. And Moses himself implies that the dead rise again, in the passage about the bush where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all men are in fact alive.’

Lk 20:27-38

The Sadducees make brief but memorable appearances in the New Testament. Their name is derived from the High Priest Zadok, who served under King Solomon (1 Kings 2:35) and whose descendants were granted exclusive rights to minister in Jerusalem (Ezek. 40:46). Mostly from wealthy and powerful families, the Sadducees only accepted the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and even then, with a very strict interpretation.

The Sadducees rejected any notion of angels, life after death, the resurrection and the immortality of the soul (Mark 12:18) and thus in this account they challenge Jesus about his teaching on the afterlife. Convinced that Mosaic Law is silent about a future resurrection they attempt to trap Jesus with a dilemma: if Moses permits a woman to remarry every time her husband dies (Deut 25:5), will this not lead to confusion in the next life? Who will be the widow’s legitimate husband if all seven of them are raised?

Jesus responds unexpectedly to the Sadducees: first, by declaring that marriage does not exist in the next life and, second, by quoting the Law of Moses against them. The burning bush episode shows that Yahweh identified himself with the patriarchs long after their death (Ex 3:6). If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still with God, then life must endure beyond death and a future resurrection is implied in the Pentateuch. In effect, Jesus uses the example of Moses to validate his argument over that of the Sadducees, who themselves were the strict followers of Moses and adherents of Mosaic Law.
This Sunday’s Gospel affirms that the Resurrection is central to Christian teaching and belief (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds). Irrespective of our life’s circumstances we live in the hope of enjoying a new and eternal life, one free of earthly and human limitations.

Anthony Cleary,
Director, Mission & identity