On the Gospel, The God Who Comes
Isaiah 7:10-14, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-24
Children are great. A kindergarten teacher tells her class the Christmas story of the Shepherds and the Three Wise Men. At the end she asked them, “Now tell me, Who was the first to know about the birth of Jesus?” A little girl shoots up her hand and answers, “Mary.” Of course, Mary. How could anyone miss that. But adults miss that because adults tend to expect more complicated answers. The child’s answer is so simple and obvious that we miss it! We have this tendency to associate God with the phenomenal and the spectacular, such as the host of angels or the guiding star, so much so that we fail to notice God’s presence and action in the ordinary and normal things of life, such as in pregnancy and birth. This child’s inspired answer reminds us to take a second look at the “ordinary things of life” that we take so much for granted and see God’s hand in them.
Our gospel today begins with a seemingly casual statement: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way …” (Matthew 1:18). But for the average Jew of Jesus’ times this statement would be a shock. Why? Because popular Jewish belief in those days did not expect the Messiah to be born of a woman as a normal, suckling baby. Though the scribes and scholars were aware of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, the average person held to the popular theology which says that “Three things come wholly unexpected — the Messiah, a godsend, and a scorpion” (Sanhedrin 97a). The Messiah was expected to drop suddenly from the skies, full-grown in all his divine regalia and power. His landing space, of course, was no other than the Temple mount. Now you can understand why Satan tempted Jesus by proposing that he jump down from the pinnacle of the temple.
The Jews found it hard to reconcile these expectations with the reality of this man Jesus whom they knew to be born and raised in their midst. “We know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from” (John 7:27). They found the ordinary ways of God’s coming, God’s presence and God’s action among His people too simple to be true.
Like the Jews of old we also wait for the coming of God among us, for our Immanuel (God with us). Maybe we should take a moment and ask ourselves, how do we expect God to come among us? How does God work among us? This is necessary because sometimes the problem is not that God is not with us, the problem rather is that we do not recognize the ways of God’s presence and action among us. We are often enough like Jacob in Bethel who awoke from his sleep and exclaimed, “So the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
The coming of the long awaited Messiah, the light of the world, the king of the Jews and the desire of the nations, not through clouds and lightning but through the nine-months pregnancy of a country girl, through thirty years of the normal human process of infancy, adolescence and adulthood, reminds us that God comes in ordinary, normal, daily circumstances of life. God comes to us in the people we see around us being born, growing up, ageing and dying. It is often hardest to see God in the people who are familiar to us, not to talk of in our own very selves. But if we see the incarnation of the Son of God as a bridge between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the order of grace and the order of nature, between the sacred and the profane, maybe we will begin to discern the presence and action of God more and more in our daily lives.
A Nigerian proverb says, “Listen, and you will hear the footsteps of the ants.” Today we are challenged to listen and hear the footsteps of God who comes into our lives in ordinary ways, through ordinary people and at ordinary moments of our lives. No need to look up to the mountain top or the depths of the ocean, for“In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
On the Epistle, The Reason for the Season
A teacher wants to know how each of her students celebrates Christmas. She calls on young Patrick Murphy, “Tell me Patrick, what do you do at Christmas time?” Patrick answers, “Me and my twelve brothers and sisters go to midnight Mass and we sing hymns, then we come home, and we put mince pies by the back door and hang up our stockings. Then we go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to come with toys.” The teacher asks another student, “And you, Jimmy Brown, what do you do at Christmas?” Jimmy replies, “Me and my sister also go to Church with Mom and Dad and we sing carols, and after we get home we put cookies and milk by the chimney and we hang up our stockings. We hardly sleep waiting for Santa Claus to bring our toys.” Realizing there was a Jewish boy in the class and not wanting to leave him out of the discussion, the teacher asks Isaac Cohen the same question, “Isaac, what do you do at Christmas?” Isaac replies, “Well, we go for a ride and we sing a Christmas carol.” Surprised, the teacher asks him, “Tell us what you sing.” Isaac goes on, “Well, it’s the same thing every year. Dad comes home from the office. We all get into the Rolls Royce, and we drive to his toy factory. When we get inside we look at all the empty shelves and we sing, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’ Then we all go to the Bahamas.”
A visitor from Mars arriving on planet earth at Christmas time would have a hard time figuring out what it is we are celebrating. With all the snowmen and icicles on our lawns and decorations, the Martian might think it is just a winter festival. With Santa Claus and his elves and reindeer everywhere, the Martian might think that Christmas is a feast in honour of a fat bearded man dressed in red. And with all the shopping, eating, drinking and exchange of presents, the Martian might think we are simply having an end-of-year holiday. People celebrate Christmas today in various ways and for various reasons. On the last Sunday before Christmas, the church offers us the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans to help us to ask and reflect on the important question: What are we celebrating at Christmas? What is the reason for the season?
Today’s second reading is the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this short paragraph Paul tells us about himself, about the Romans, and more importantly, what his letter is all about. Paul tells us it is all about the Good News of what God has done for us in His Son, Jesus Christ. This is exactly what we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. Christmas is the feast day of his birth. Who is this child whose birth the whole world celebrates? The second reading helps us to articulate an answer.
The child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is:
- a child “who was descended from David according to the flesh” (verse 3). We must never forget that God acts through human beings to fulfil His purpose. The story of Christmas, therefore, is not just the story about God and Jesus but also the story about Mary and Joseph, about the shepherds and the magi, the story of how human beings cooperate with God.
- a child whom God Himself declared to be God’s beloved Son especially by raising him from the dead (verse 4). He is the one who speaks God’s word, the one to whom we must listen.
- a child through whom we receive grace (verse 5). G-RA-C-E stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense . “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). This is the child through whom we receive God’s abundant blessings much more than we ever deserve.
- a child through whom we receive our apostleship (verse 5), that is, our calling as God’s servants. In Jesus we receive divine riches and privileges (grace), but we also receive a divine calling to serve God in our neighbour (apostleship).
As we pray for the blessing of the new-born Child at Christmas, let us also ask him to show us how we can serve God with gladness and joy all the days of our lives.