The People Who Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light
Sunday, 12/17 — Gaudete Sunday
John the Baptist opens the scene in today’s gospel reading (John 1:6-8, 19-28). Right away, St. John the Evangelist identifies who the Baptist is not—the Messiah. The Jews had the same questions about the identity of the Baptist. The last prophet before John the Baptist, Malachi, died over four centuries before. Being under Roman rule irritated the Jews as they waited for the Messiah. The promise of the Messiah gave a reason for hope and provided a source of anxiety at the same time. If not now, when? A prophetic figure like the Baptist arises, and the hope and anxiety burst forth on the banks of the Jordan: is this the one, at last? The immediate clarification in the gospel sheds light on just how extraordinary of a figure John the Baptist was: and likely that many considered him to be the Messiah.
The secular world, despite its rejection of Christianity, still has that same hope and anxiety for a savior. The problem is that the secular culture looks for fulfillment in sports, pleasure, money, and power. Sadly, a secular version of Jesus Christ misses His essence; it molds Him into our image and likeness, rather than recreating us in His.
Like John the Baptist so many years before, Christianity proclaims: the long-awaited one is Jesus! Do not seek elsewhere. Everything we want is realized in Him.
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Matt 1:23)
We humans tend to forget the works of God; it takes constant effort and reminding. More often than not, God has to remind us Himself. In his prophecy cited by St. Matthew, God makes the very name of the child, “God is with us.”
Truly, He has never been absent. In the garden of Eden, He walked with Adam and Eve. When man strayed and sinned against Him, God bound Himself to fallen man with covenants and promises. As the generations passed, He bound Himself further to the Chosen People with the ten commandments and delivered them from slavery. The presence of the Ark of the Covenant among the people of Israel was literally God’s very presence among them. The tabernacle, and later the Jerusalem Temple, that housed the Ark were both designed and treated as heaven on earth. Even with that divine presence, God promised something more. Not a quantitative difference, but a qualitative one. The prophet Jeremiah foretold a covenant that went deeper: deliverance from sin (see Jer 31:31-34).
With the Incarnation, God became man. That didn’t mean only that “God had become a Man; it meant primarily that God had become Man, had infected the human race, as it were, with his Divinity” (Ronald Knox, St. Paul’s Gospel, p. 9). The new covenant features the ultimate attribute of the divine love: self-gift. It was there all along in the past covenants and promises; yet Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). He surpasses the prior covenants in every way when He came to be with us. Today, thank the Holy Trinity for the unfathomable gift of Emmanuel, God with us.
The first reading (Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a) and the gospel reading (Luke 1:5-25) both show God delivering women from infertility. In biblical times, infertility was considered a curse from God. Added onto that was their age. Both women, the wife of Manoah and Elizabeth, were described as being advanced in years. According to human reasoning, pregnancy for them was ludicrous. They were cursed and old—what hope is there, even of a miracle?
The angel Gabriel told Mary that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). That verse has become so well-known that the impact of it can pass completely by. He can—and has—worked amazing wonders. Have you ever felt that a family wound could never heal? Or that the stain of sin was too great on your soul for God to forgive you? An attachment to sin that could never be broken?
This was the very reason Jesus came into the world. So often, He said to recipients of miracles, ‘your faith has saved you.’ Is what the angel Gabriel said a mere pious platitude? Or do you believe God has the power and the desire to work a miracle in your life? Jesus came to Bethlehem many ages ago; but this very year, He can be born in your heart and create it anew.
In today’s gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38), St. Luke gives us an account of the Annunciation. According to tradition, this account comes from Our Lady Herself—who else could’ve given Luke those details?
There was significant debate among the Jews of Jesus’ day as to whether Jesus was the Messiah. What the Angel Gabriel told Mary, however, makes it blindingly clear that her child would be the Messiah. The child would be given “the throne of David his father,” from whose lineage the Messiah was promised to come. The prophet Nathan relayed the words of God to King David in 2 Samuel 7:12-17, that the line of David would last forever.
Then Gabriel said that the child would “rule over the house of Jacob forever.” The House of Jacob included all twelve tribes (see Deut 33:6-25). And, those twelve included ten lost tribes. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:21-23), ten tribes were exiled and never returned (1 Chron 5:26). Mary’s child would not only reunite the twelve tribes—hundreds of years later!—but then reign over a never-ending kingdom. Only God Himself could accomplish such a monumental task.
Gabriel could’ve said, “He will be the Messiah.” Rather, in a very poetic way, he described the wounds of Israel that the Messiah would heal. We pray for the coming of the kingdom in every “Our Father,” the very kingdom Gabriel spoke of. Jesus came to earth to establish a never-ending kingdom, freeing humanity from sin and division. In that spirit we call out to Him, come Lord Jesus!
Today’s gospel reading treats us to the story of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Wednesday showed us the first joyful mystery of the rosary, and today gives us the second. The third joyful mystery is not far off!
Truly, if the Visitation could be characterized by one word, it would be joy. Take a moment to slip into an Ignatian imagining of the story: put yourself in the room when Mary and Elizabeth meet. The other women in the household, received Elizabeth’s kinswoman in what they likely expected to be a normal visit. Out of nowhere, Elizabeth is overcome with the Holy Spirit and cries out, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” At this point, the Holy Spirit has yet to be sent to the nascent Church; this is decades before Pentecost. Even so, the Holy Spirit prepared the way for His spouse, Mary. He went before her to fill the heart of Elizabeth.
Imagine Elizabeth’s joy! First she becomes miraculously pregnant, and then the salvation of Israel comes into her home! Elizabeth and Mary undoubtedly shared their stories of the Angel Gabriel. What would it have been like to listen to that conversation? To see the smiles on their faces, knowing that the Messiah was in their midst?
In advance of the coming of Jesus this Christmas, the Holy Spirit wants to fill our hearts. He wants us to share in the tremendous joy that Mary and Elizabeth had: God has been faithful to His covenant, and the new covenant is unfolding before our very eyes!
The second half of the Visitation comprises today’s gospel reading (Luke 1:46-56). Mary reflects Elizabeth’s marvelous greeting to heaven, praising God for His saving work. Scripture scholar William Barclay noted the “loveliness in the Magnificat—but in that loveliness there is dynamite” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 16). Indeed, Mary turns the values of the world upside down. The proud, the mighty, and the rich represent the values of the world: ego, power, and money. In the divine order brought to fruition by Jesus, those things are stripped of any meaning. Rather, it is the meek, the lowly, and the poor that will be given every good thing.
That is good news for all of us, whether we’re rich, poor, powerful, or lowly. The Magnificat, and later the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt 5-7), confirm something we already knew. Ego, power, and money won’t fill up the human heart. We are designed for something more; something the material world can’t possibly give. God built humans that way, and gave us His Son and Spirit to fill that hole in our hearts.
In Matthew 10, disciples of John the Baptist went to Jesus on the Baptist’s behalf. They questioned who exactly He was, and Jesus affirmed His identity as the Messiah. After they left, Jesus pointed out to His disciples that John the Baptist was the forerunner foretold by the prophet Malachi. He cites the opening of today’s first reading.
“I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Mal 3:1). So much of the story of salvation history is sudden and unexpected: both as a whole and on an individual level. Moses was in the middle of tending his father-in-law’s flocks; David was on a break from tending his father’s sheep when he was anointed king; Jeremiah was caught off guard and tried to plead his way out of the Lord’s mission. Jesus called Matthew, James, John, and Peter right in the middle of their day.
God doesn’t wait for a convenient time for us to knock on the door of our hearts (Rev 3:20). It’s no different for us today than it was for Moses, David, or Matthew. In the midst of family reunions, Christmas parties, shopping, traveling, and baking, Jesus comes to us. The Lord we seek has suddenly come! Open the door and welcome Him into your heart.
Sunday, 12/24 – Christmas Eve
The readings for midnight Mass highlight the contrast between darkness and light and build to a crescendo in the gospel. “The people who walked in darkness” in the first reading are the people of Israel. Isaiah spoke to a people who had been submerged in darkness—enduring war, the destruction of their homeland, and exile in a foreign land.
Fast forwarding to the Nativity, light again came amidst the darkness. The Jews were not in exile as in Isaiah’s day, but they were under Roman rule, with a cruel king in power over them. Darkness reigned until Christmas Eve night. The light of God burst forth and the glory of the Lord shone on a field near Bethlehem. We don’t have a good frame of reference for the glory of the Lord, but we can look to the Old Testament for help. It is mentioned in reference to the tabernacle that held the Ark of the Covenant. The glory of the Lord signified God’s actual presence. It was so sacred and transcendent that Moses was unable to enter the tabernacle when the glory of the Lord was upon it (Ex 40:35).
Filled with awe and fear, the shepherds saw this same glory as the angel announced the birth of a savior. If one angel “struck them with great fear,” imagine how they must have felt when the “multitude of the heavenly host” joined the first angel, singing praise to God.
Christmas is the season of joy, light, and praise. In this gospel reading, St. Luke paints a picture for us of what that looks like. In all of our lives, we feel darkness at one time or another. Remember the hopeful promise of Isaiah, and how it was overwhelmingly fulfilled in Jesus. The depth of the darkness doesn’t matter, whether twilight or pitch-black. The light of God pierces the darkness. May the light of Jesus dispel every dark corner of our hearts!