Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Light Of Revelation To The Gentiles, And The Glory Of Your People Israel!

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple

Reading 1 1 John 2:3-11
The way we may be sure that we know Jesus
is to keep his commandments.
Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments
is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.
This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.

Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you
but an old commandment that you had from the beginning.
The old commandment is the word that you have heard.
And yet I do write a new commandment to you,
which holds true in him and among you,
for the darkness is passing away,
and the true light is already shining.
Whoever says he is in the light,
yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.
Whoever loves his brother remains in the light,
and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.
Whoever hates his brother is in darkness;
he walks in darkness
and does not know where he is going
because the darkness has blinded his eyes.


In today’s First Reading, we look more closely at one of the principles John mentioned yesterday: If we would “walk in the light” we must keep the commandments, especially that of love. We come to know God when we keep his commandments. “Whoever says ‘I know him’, but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” These words are clearly directed against the Gnostics, who claimed that all that mattered was to be united with the spiritual, since the material world was insignificant and worthless. Anything done on the material level did not matter, including actions and attitudes which we would consider immoral, indecent, hurtful and violent toward others. In their way of thinking, the commandments, insofar as they involved the material world, including our own bodies and those of others, had no validity whatsoever.

In every age of the Church, there is a tendency toward a form of Gnosticism, which considers that “knowing God” is something merely intellectual that can be acquired by memorizing the answers in the catechism. This gives rise to an obsession with doctrinal orthodoxy on which some people seem to base their adherence to the Church. Yet the two great commandments do not speak of knowledge, but of love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind and might. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To “know” God is to enter a real relationship, which is based on experience, and calls us to love and intimacy, the free and mutual gift of the whole self by lover to beloved. 

John tells us that anyone who follows the guidance of God is “in God”. Here, we have a very clear example to follow: “Whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked” – that is, to act as he acted. It is clear that “he” refers to Jesus, the human presence of God on earth, who is the example we are to follow. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.

The letter then goes on to say that what has just been written represents both an “old” commandment and a “new” one. This section begins with the greeting: “Beloved”. The word is translated in various ways, e.g. “my dear friends” in the New Jerusalem Bible. The Greek is agapetoi which derives from the word agape. There are three words in Greek that can be translated as “love”: eros – conjugal love; philia – friendship; agape – selfless love, which asks no response from the beloved.

The “old commandment” is expressed in the instruction to love God with all our heart and mind and might, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, a precept that is founded in the Old Testament, and remains valid in every age. It embraces the principles of the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses.

Yet, John’s letter also brings a new commandment. It is the “new commandment” that Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In the Old Testament, the commandment to love the neighbor was one of many, and there was some doubt as to who the neighbor might be (cf. Luke 10:29). Jesus goes much further, asking his disciples not merely to love their neighbor as themselves, but to love one another as Jesus loves them. To make it perfectly clear, he later told them that the greatest love someone could express for another was to give one's life for them – just as he did. This love was to be extended unconditionally to every other person without exception. This is the way God acts— his love is extended to everyone, just as the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike.

Thus, “whoever says he is the light, yet hates his brother, is still in darkness.” The Gnostics, through their “special” knowledge, believed that they were in the light, but by acting harmfully against their brothers and sisters, they clearly remain in darkness.

On the other hand, “whoever loves his brother remains in light … but whoever hates his brother is in darkness”. This is all we need to know if we would live in the light – to extend an unconditional hand of love to every other person. So simple, yet so difficult! Those who refuse to live in this way “walk in darkness, not knowing where they are going.” Without agape, self-giving love, they are blind.

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Responsorial Psalm 96
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
The LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty go before him;
praise and grandeur are in his sanctuary.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!


Gospel Luke 2:22-33
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
(and you yourself a sword will pierce)
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”


The Holy Family was a Jewish family and both Jesus and his parents are shown as faithfully carrying out the requirements of the Law. In today’s Gospel there is a double ceremony described: one is the purification of the mother and second is the offering of the first-born child to the Lord. In the past, we used to refer to the feast, then celebrated on February 2, as the Purification of Mary, but now we prefer to speak of the Presentation of Jesus.

Clearly, the notion of the need for a mother to be purified after giving birth is not something we feel comfortable with now. For the Jews the spilling of blood was a source of uncleanness and so, after giving birth, there had to be, after a designated number of days, a ceremony of purification. Sometimes the husband too went through a similar ceremony. Given the special circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, the idea of purification seems even less desirable although Luke does not seem to have any problem with it.

According to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:2-8), a woman who gave birth to a boy was not allowed to touch anything sacred for 40 days (in the case of a baby girl, the period was even longer) nor could she enter the Temple precincts because of her ritual “impurity”. At the end of this period, as mentioned by Luke, she was required to offer a year-old lamb as a burnt offering and a turtle dove or a young pigeon as expiation for sin. Those who could not afford the lamb could offer two birds instead.

The parents also presented their first-born son as an offering to the Lord, again in accordance with Jewish law (Exodus 13:2,12) but this did not have to be done in the Temple. Presenting the child in the Temple seems to re-echo the scene in the First Book of Samuel where Hannah offers her son Samuel for services in the sanctuary. There is no mention in Luke’s account of the five shekels that was supposed to be paid to a member of the priestly family to ‘buy back’ the child.

The account now goes on to mention two elderly people - Simeon and Anna. (Anna will not appear until tomorrow.) They represent all those devout Jews who were looking forward to the expected coming of the Messiah and the restoration of God’s rule, God’s kingship, in Israel.

Simeon had received a promise that he would not die until he had laid eyes on the Messiah. Under the promptings of the Spirit he enters the Temple just as Mary and Joseph come there with their child. He recognizes who the Child is and then says a prayer of thanksgiving and surrender to God. We call this prayer the Nunc dimittis (‘Now you may dismiss …’), a hymn which is now used during the Night Prayer of the Church. In harmony with Luke’s vision of Jesus, Simeon describes Jesus as a Light for the Gentiles and the Glory of the people of Israel. And so, the Feast of the Presentation is a festival of light which we sometimes call "Candlemas". It is a time when candles are blessed and lit to reflect Christ as our Light.

Meanwhile Mary and Joseph are astounded at what is being said about their child. Even they have not yet come to a full realization of just who he is.

But all is not sweetness and light. Simeon goes on to say some hard-sounding words. The Child, he says, “is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel and a sign that is contradicted”. To say that Jesus brings about the fall of people is a difficult idea to come to terms with. It seems to fly in the face of the loving, forgiving and compassionate Jesus of the Gospel. And yet the paradox is that many, for reasons of their own, can totally reject the way of life that Jesus proposes. In doing so they also turn away from the direction where their fulfillment as persons lies. Jesus’ life is a sign, a sign which points us in the direction of God but there are many who contradict that sign and go in other directions.

But Simeon has more to say. To Jesus’ Mother he says: “You yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Mary will not know the full meaning of these words for many years to come, although a small foretaste will come when Jesus is lost as a boy in Jerusalem. Mary may be full of grace but, no more than her Son will she spared from sharing some of the pain which he will endure. It is all part of that unconditional Yes! which Mary made to the angel in Nazareth. It is included, too, in the offering of her Son that she has just made to God his Father.

There is a scene in the gospel of Luke where a woman, having been impressed by the teaching of Jesus, cries out: “Blessed is the womb that carried you and blessed is the breast on which you suckled!” A great tribute to Mary for having produced such a magnificent Son. But Jesus replies: “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Mary’s true greatness is not in the privileges bestowed on her by God but in her unconditional acceptance of everything God asked of her.

For each one of us it is the same. Today, let us say a big Yes! to God no matter what he sends our way.
Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

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