Catholics for a Changing Church

Reflections for week beginning 18 December 2022

Reflections on the Daily Mass Readings

by Derek Reeve

An Introduction to the Reflections on the readings from December 17th until Christmastide

During the last days of Advent, from the days of the great ‘O’s, we read the various accounts of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth and his childhood from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke. We know these stories so well but, perhaps, we may have sometimes asked ourselves the question, ‘Did these things really happen?’ Before the reflections themselves it may be helpful to give some sort of introduction to these various accounts to help us think about them more reasonably.

First of all, we must recognize that, although all these stories are at the beginning of the Gospels, they are in fact, additions to the earliest preaching about Jesus, which concentrated on his public life. It is Mark’s Gospel that gives us this earliest teaching though the date of writing this Gospel is unknown. It is generally placed just before or after the destruction of the great Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 C.E.

There were many stories circulating at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second which, as it were, filled in the gaps that existed in the Gospel accounts. These are works of pious fiction though there may, of course, be snippets of truth in them which had been passed on by word of mouth.

Are the accounts of Jesus’ infancy in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke just pious fiction then? If we examine them closely, we will find that they are much more serious than that and that they do, in fact, embody a whole theology. It is worth remembering too, that there are other places in the Gospels where there are accounts of events for which the writer could not have direct evidence such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness or his agony in the garden.

In other words, these stories are not meant to be factual or biographical but theological. This does not mean that they are less valuable. On the contrary, they contain something which is deeply true about Jesus because they are a reflection on the meaning of his life. It is to this category that the Christmas stories belong.

There is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the first generations of Christians were somewhat bewildered by the fact that Jesus’ life and ministry did not live up to the promises made in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

It is, therefore, the concern of the later writers in the New Testament, like the authors of John’s Gospel, of the last epistles of Paul, and of the Christmas stories which we are looking at, to suggest that these expectations were a mistake. What the authors seek to point out is that the Kingdom of God had really come in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the Kingdom had come already in his public life where sin and death were being overcome. Indeed, they want to say, the Kingdom had already come in Jesus first coming, and the stories with which this was surrounded seek to make this plain.

There had also grown up among the Jews, especially during their exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, a way of using past events in the Scripture to throw light on the present and this is what is called Midrash. The Christmas stories are all based on the Old Testament in something of the same way, using the past to throw light on the present and leaving the reader uncertain as to how to distinguish the historical facts from the background against which they are presented so that they too fall into this category of Midrash.

A truly Christian reading of the Old Testament, and this is what the Christians of the first few centuries so clearly understood, sees it, not simply as a long preparation for Christ but as a constant anticipation of Christ.

The first chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels should be seen then as stories which embody a theology. The questions that must be asked are not historical, the when, how, and where but theological, what is their meaning?

A good example of this way of looking at things is the accounts of creation at the beginning of Genesis. There, the authors are not concerned to tell us when or how the world was created but, rather, ‘What kind of world is it?’ ’What kind of people should we be?’.

In the same way, the stories at the beginning of these two Gospels do not give us historical information but, rather, theology. They answer the question ‘Who is Jesus?’, and they always come back with the same answer. He is the One who was crucified and raised from the dead and lives on, to give life to all who believe in him. We often fail to remember that the resurrection is not just a bit more information tacked on at the end of each Gospel. It is, in fact, the only message that the apostles had to proclaim, ‘He is risen!’ In view of all this, the only language that can be used to tell of Jesus’ birth and infancy must be symbolic. It is the only language in which profound theological realities can be expressed.

‘Symbols and images … cluster thickly in the scenes of the ‘Christmas story’ which, in Matthew and Luke, is a prelude to their account of Jesus’ public career: visits of angels, prophetic dreams, the marvellous star in the East, the miraculous birth greeted with songs from the heavenly choir, all the appealing incidents so familiar in the appropriate setting of the Christmas carol and nativity play. That there is a basis of fact somewhere behind it all need not be doubted, but it would be a bold man who should presume to draw a firm line between fact and symbol. What our authors are saying through all this structure of imagery is that the obscure birth of a child to a carpenter’s wife was, in view of all that came out of it, a decisive moment in history, and the traffic of two worlds was initiated, to be traced by the discerning eye all through the story that was to follow’. These are the words of one of the foremost Scripture scholars in the latter part of last century (C.H. Dodd ‘The Founder of Christianity’ Collins, London, 1971, pages 30-31).

If the stories at the beginning of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are theology rather than history, it follows that the sort of questions we have to ask of them are not ‘When’. ‘Where’ or how’ but rather, what is the meaning of this or that passage.

A child and a childlike age will be content to explore the meaning of a story without enquiring closely about its historical character. An adult and the history conscious age in which we live will want to distinguish very clearly between the historical and the non-historical. This is our problem, and we have to accept that to treat these stories as history is to miss their point.

The kind of biographical questions that we keep putting to the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, are secondary. The first thing that should be in our mind when we read any page of the Gospel is that this is a profession of faith by someone who has been through the experience of Easter, who has been taken over by the Spirit of Christ and can only speak of him in the light of his resurrection. The further question about the actual event and where and when and how, comes in second place.

If this is true of the whole Gospel narrative, it is particularly true of the opening pages of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Here, above all, the Gospel writer is asserting his faith, not writing a biography.

This does not mean, of course, that the Christmas stories have no historical basis or that they might have been made up out of the blue. A number of basic facts control and give direction to both accounts, and a comparison of the two stories in Matthew and Mark would suggest that those elements which are common to the two are historical facts. The person of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their descent from David, their home at Nazareth, the person of Herod are all common to both, and it is interesting to note that these are precisely the historical details which occur in John’s Gospel and which we would, therefore, have known, even if the Christmas stories had never been written.

It is important, however, that we remember that these facts are pressed into service for a theological purpose, not a biographical one. The facts are used in the freest possible manner and re-thought in the light of both the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus.

This means, too, that the accounts of Matthew and Luke cannot be harmonized. These are not two biographies but two ways in which the authors have tried to express their theology. It would be as pointless to try to harmonise two portraits by different artists of the same person. Each is a valid portrait in its own right.

What are the questions that we ought to be asking then as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy by Matthew and Luke? Firstly, Matthew, in order to show that Jesus is the true Messiah, foretold by the prophets, makes constant reference to them. In fact, in his account of Jesus birth and childhood he uses five clear quotations, each of which begins with ‘This took place in order to fulfil…’. As was said earlier, when speaking of the ‘Midrash’, none of these texts are, in fact, predictions about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Matthew just makes use of them.

Because Matthew is writing for his Jewish-Christian community, his whole purpose is to re-tell, as it were, the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the risen Christ.

Luke’s purpose is different and, it is not for nothing that he has often been portrayed as an artist. Luke may have been a painter, but it is in his skill with words that we see his true artistry. At the very beginning of his Gospel, he says that his aim is to write ‘an orderly account’ about Jesus. This is borne out in the way he begins his Gospel. The balance and harmony betray an artist’s hand. Luke wants his readers to appreciate the parallel that he makes between John the Baptist and Jesus in order to understand how much Jesus towers over John. These first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are, in fact, an elaboration of the statement of John the Baptist with which the main body of the Gospel begins: ‘One is coming after me who is mightier than me (Luke 3/16).

Much more could be written but these few thoughts may help you look at these Christmas stories in a different light. What we have to do with each episode in the story is to ask ourselves ‘What is the writer trying to say in this passage’. We come back always to the essential fact that he is saying that in these ordinary everyday events of pregnancy, birth and family, this child is the One who is now risen and in him we have seen the very presence of God in our own flesh and blood. Like the way in which the figures of Jesus and Mary and the saints are portrayed with light around them and haloes, these stories are the ornamentation around the essential facts to make us recognize with whom the stories are really dealing. As we enjoy these beautiful stories, let’s not get bogged down in asking whether they really happened. Let’s rejoice in the fact that they reveal to us the faith of the Gospel writers, faith in the Risen One whose birth we are now celebrating.

Sunday, December 18th, Fourth Sunday in Advent in Year One, ‘O Adonai’

Readings: Isaiah 7/10-14 : Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1/1-7 : Matthew 1/18-24

On this last Sunday of Advent the focus settles not on Mary but on Joseph. This is because we are reading Matthew’s Gospel on the Sundays this year. As we saw yesterday when we read the genealogy which precedes today’s Gospel reading, Matthew’s purpose is to show Jesus as the fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. The genealogy traces Joseph’s ancestry back through David to Abraham and then links Jesus with Joseph as the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Although the Gospel writer, in today’s extract, goes on to show that Jesus was conceived in an unusual way and Joseph was not his father, nevertheless, by marrying Mary, Joseph becomes the legal parent of Jesus. In this way, the Gospel writer neatly inserts Jesus into the long line of Joseph’s ancestry which we read yesterday.

The stories about Jesus’ birth, with which we are most familiar, all come from Luke’s Gospel where Mary takes centre stage. In Matthew’s Gospel it is Joseph, because, as we said, the Gospel writer is writing for a Jewish Christian community, and his intention is to show Jesus as, not only Jewish, but with an ancestry that links him with the prophecies made about the Messiah in the Jewish Scriptures.

Joseph is depicted as a ‘man of honour’, which refers in the original text to his being a man who observed the Jewish Law. He was already engaged to Mary, though not living with her, when she became pregnant, and the Gospel writer explains her pregnancy as having come about ‘through the Holy Spirit’. Although we think of this in terms of what we have since learnt of the Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the writer is here using the term more in the sense in which the Spirit is spoken of in creation (Genesis 1/1-2). There the Spirit of God ‘swept over the face of the waters’ and brought order out of chaos. In this way, the writer gives a clue as to the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy which Joseph must face.

The text we read says that Joseph was anxious to ‘spare her (Mary) publicity’ but, in fact, he was sparing her almost certain public disgrace and even, possibly death. In Deuteronomy 22/23-27 we read that an engaged woman, found not to be a virgin, was to be returned to her father’s house and stoned to death by the men of the city on account of the disgrace she had brought on her father’s house. Though this punishment was no longer used at this time, Joseph’s intention was to spare Mary terrible disgrace by simply divorcing her.

It is then that what we might call the ‘Annunciation to Joseph’ takes place. The angel of God serves as a messenger and dreams are seen as vehicles of divine communication. The angel tells Joseph that he must take Mary as his wife and tells him that Mary is pregnant by some divine intervention, and so he must complete the marriage process and take her to his home since he was already engaged to her. It is here that the purpose of this angelic visitation becomes clear. It is so that Jesus may be established as the ‘Son of God’ since he was conceived by the Spirit of God and also as ‘Son of David’ through Joseph’s ancestry.

The angel then tells Joseph that he must give the child the name ‘Jesus’. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary who gives her child his name but here the focus is on Joseph and the name he is to give is Jesus, which is the Greek form (from the Greek text) of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yeshu. These are shortened forms of Joshua, a name which probably meant ‘Yahweh (God) helps’ but had come to mean ‘God saves’, which connects Jesus’ name with his mission ‘to save the people from their sins’.

We then have a formula which is typical of Matthew’s Gospel. ‘All this took place to fulfil the words spoken by the Lord to the prophet’, in this case, Isaiah. This device which the Gospel writer uses repeatedly underlines the continuity between the Jewish Scriptures and Jesus, which is always one of his main concerns, writing, as he does, for a community of Jewish Christians.

The Gospel text then quotes Isaiah in words that are very familiar to us and which we have read in the first reading today from Isaiah. The oracle from Isaiah which is referred to here, concerns the birth of a prince of David’s line from a young woman of the royal court. This would have been a sign of hope to Judah in the days of King Ahaz. The Hebrew word used for the young woman means just that but when the text came to be translated into Greek, the word ‘parthenos’ was used which means a virgin, since the translator had presumed that the girl alluded to would have been a virgin at that time. However, in neither the Hebrew or the Greek texts is there any assumption that the conception might have been virginal. The use of the Greek word, ‘parthenos’ in the Greek version of Isaiah which is here quoted, gave strength to the already existing faith in the virginal conception of Jesus. This had already become established by the time the Gospel was written it would seem. The Gospel misquotes Isaiah slightly in saying that ‘they’ will call the child Emmanuel and, perhaps, he is alluding to those who would be ‘saved from their sins’. The name’ Emmanuel’ means, strictly, ‘God with us’ and indicates here, Jesus’ identity as Son of God and, for the reader of the Gospel, reminds them of Jesus promise to be with them ‘to the close of the ages’ (Matthew 28/20).

The reading from the letter to the Roman Christian community takes up the same theme as does the Gospel writer. Jesus is the descendant of David, ‘promised long ago through the prophets and the Scriptures’ But after speaking of Jesus in this way, Paul then goes on to speak of Jesus as the ‘Son of God’, the One who is risen from the dead.  Paul’s words relate very closely to what we have read in both the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel reading. Paul then proceeds to explain to the Roman Christians how he has been commissioned to preach this Good News to the pagan nations, of which Rome is one. He ends this short extract by reminding them that they are ‘God’s beloved in Rome, called to be saints’.

On this last Sunday of Advent, these are words that we might hang on to. Like the Roman Christians, few though they were at that time, we are also called to be saints! Not in the plaster statue sort of way with haloes but as the Church. By baptism and the anointing with oil, we have become part of that Church, which is the Body of Christ. It is that which makes us ‘saints’ or holy people. It is for us, as much as it was for Paul, to proclaim the message of the Gospel. That message is that God has come among us and is still with us. How do we do this? By being the sort of community that makes it clear that God is truly with us, the sort of community that Jesus built up with his friends and disciples. A community of all sorts of people, where all are welcome and where the Gospel is proclaimed, above all, by the love that others see we have for one another. How can we make that more of a reality? By trying to get to know others in our church community and bringing them together so that we really do begin to share in each other’s lives. Can we work at that over Christmas time?

For ourselves, though, the emphasis that the Gospel puts on Jesus being truly one of us, human as we are, should be uppermost in our minds this Christmas. Because he is one of us, he truly understands us with all our faults and failings. The God that Jesus shows us, in his own reflection of the Father, is a God who, above all else, just loves us. Let’s hang on to that thought throughout this Christmas tide. However busy we may be, let’s keep in our hearts that simple phrase, ‘God loves me and God loves everyone else too, even the people I dislike and find difficult, so perhaps I ought to love them too!

This Evening, at Evening Prayer, we sing the second of the great ‘O’s, which surround the singing of Mary’s Song, it is ‘O Adonai’ and this word needs a bit of explaining.

In the story of Moses on Mount Sinai, God speaks to him out of the Bush that is burning, and tells him that he is the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. When he orders Moses to go to Pharaoh to tell him to release the Israelite people from their slavery, Moses asks who shall he say has sent him since he does not know God’s name. The reply was to tell Pharaoh that ‘I am who I am’ sent him and that would be his name for ever. In many Bibles lately, that word has been used in the text and written as ‘Yahweh’, but it is a word with several meanings and can best be described as ‘The One who is’, and we are not certain of the pronunciation. However, for the Jews, the name was held to be so sacred that they would never pronounce it and, even now, devout Jews will not write the word, God but will write G-d as if to say, we must not even say it. Only the consonants of this word were written, and the scribes would write under them, in the way that Hebrew was written, the word ‘Adonai’ which means ‘the Lord’ and is pronounced Add-oh-nigh-ee. In written Hebrew, only the consonants were written, and the reader had to know the vowels that went between them. In the VI-X centuries a group of scholars, known as the Masoretes, introduced a system of vowel signs placed underneath the consonants so that the reader would know the pronunciation of the word. In the case of the mysterious name of God, the vowel sounds placed beneath the consonants were those of the word, Adonai, so that the reader, when he came to the name would say Adonai and not pronounce the sacred name of God. In the post Reformation period, when people came to translate the Bible into English, they, mistakenly thought that it was Jehovah from the connection of the consonants in the sacred name and the vowels from Adonai. We thus have this totally odd name for God which is still sometimes used but which means nothing. So when we read the word Adonai, for us it means the Lord, but it has quite a history!

Jesus’ followers very soon started using the word ’Lord’ to describe him, and we find it frequently in the New Testament. It is an assertion that Jesus is, in fact, God. He is ‘the Lord’ the Ruler of heaven and earth, the One through whom all things were made, and it is as such that we speak to him in today’s great ‘O’ antiphon. But we are also reminded, in using this title, that God comes to us in Jesus, not in power and might, like the fire of the burning bush or the noise and the flashing of thunder and lightning as on Mount Sinai. In Jesus, God appears to us humble and weak and as a little child. He is born in our image that we may be reborn in his image.

Here, then is the text of this beautiful ‘O’ antiphon for today:


and leader of the House of Israel,

you showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush

and gave him your holy Law on Mount Sinai,


and stretch out your mighty hand

and set us free.

As we repeat these words today, let’s remember our Jewish sisters and brothers and their great devotion to the very name of God. As we pray for them, we can pray that we may have something of that same love and devotion so that we may always speak of God with a sense of awe, acknowledging the great mystery that is the God who is love.

Monday, December 19th, Monday before Christmas, ‘O Radix Jesse’

Readings: Judges 13/2-7, 24-25 : Luke 1/5-26

As we move towards Christmas day, the readings today remind us of John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. Luke places John at the very beginning of his Gospel to prepare, as it were, the way for what he has to tell later. He also uses this opportunity to situate his story at a particular time, in the days of King Herod.

All of the characters with which Luke surrounds the story of Jesus’ infancy are characterized by a simple piety associated with the ‘lowly and humble people’ that we read of in the prophet Zephaniah (Zeph.3/12-13). It is their faith that makes it possible for them to be open to God’s revelation. Both Zachariah and Elizabeth were of the priestly class, and he is depicted about his priestly duties when this incident occurs. Elizabeth is childless and this is a classical biblical motif which enables the birth of John to happen through divine intervention. The great exemplar of infertility is Sarah, the mother of Samuel (Genesis chapters 16 to 21) and often the birth of an important personage in the Jewish Scriptures is through God’s making a barren woman fertile. Added to that, both parents were advanced in age. In other words, these are devices for saying that this person is going to be important!

While Zachariah is performing his priestly duties, the ‘whole congregation’ is waiting outside and praying. In them we see the people of Israel, awaiting God’s visitation. The angelic visitor, who identifies himself later as Gabriel, is typical of Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time Luke was writing. He comes from God as one ‘sent to speak with’ Zachariah. The angel tells Zachariah that his prayers (for a child) have been heard. Again this is a theme that runs through Luke’s Gospel, that the prayers of the humble are heard by God. He then goes on to tell the old man that his wife will bear a child who will be great, and the name he must give him is John. The child is to be set apart for God, a Nazarite, which is why he must abstain from alcohol, as set out in Numbers 6/3, and he will be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, even from his mother’s womb, which is the essential mark of a prophet in Luke’s Gospel.

The angel then outlines John’s ministry in a dramatic way and, although Luke does not directly identify John with Elijah, he says he will take on the role and the spirit of Elijah in preparing a people fit for the coming Messiah. Not surprisingly, Zachariah professes disbelief in the angel’s message in view of his age and that of his wife. The angel reproaches him for doubting his message of Good News and tells him that he will be dumb until the child arrives as a chastisement for his doubts. The people waiting outside realise that something extraordinary has happened but Zachariah could only make signs to them. On his return home, Elizabeth, against all odds, does become pregnant, but Zachariah had to await the fulfilment of the prophecy before his speech would be restored.

This whole episode is set at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel to emphasise that Jesus comes into the world after a long period of preparation, during which it was the humble and lowly folk who kept faith in the coming of a Messiah. John stands at the head of this long preparation and, having been set aside by God and filled with the Spirit, he is the one who makes the final preparations for this event.

The story from the book of Judges is about the birth of the great Jewish hero, Samson, and we can see how the way in which Luke tells the story of John’s birth mirrors that of Samson’s. It makes it very clear to those who hear his Gospel, that John is to be a great man and a prophet.

Today, we sing the third of the great ‘O’ antiphons before and after the Song of Mary at Evening Prayer. It is addressed to the Lord as ‘the Root of Jesse’ to be understood as the one who flowers from that root. Jesse was the father of King David from whom Jesus is made to descend in the genealogies of both Matthew and Luke so as to be of David’s royal line. Jesus is a different kind of monarch, however, who will rule all the peoples. His reign will be one of justice and peace so that the power and the might of this world will be put to silence and all the peoples will bow down before him. This is the idyllic picture that the prophets all portray of the coming Kingdom. We know that, although the kingdom is among us and within us wherever love rules, we must still look forward to that final reign of love that we believe God will bring about. So we sing or pray these words, above all, in hope.


you have been raised up as a sign for all the peoples;

in your presence the powerful fall silent,

and all the nations bow down in worship before you.


and set us free

and do not delay.

Tuesday, December 20th, Tuesday before Christmas, ‘O clavis David’

Readings: Isaiah 7/10-14 : Luke 1/26-38

Yesterday the Gospel reading told the story of how John the Baptist came to be conceived as the one who would prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. Today it is the story of how Mary receives the news that she is to be the mother of the promised Messiah. This story all too familiar to us because we have heard it so often, but it is important that we look at it again and see what fuller meaning it might have for us. The extract from the prophet Isaiah is the one which we heard on Sunday and announces the coming of a royal child to a young woman. On Sunday it was paralleled by the story of what we called ‘the Annunciation to Joseph’ of Jesus’ birth as we read of it in Matthew’s Gospel. Today, it is the story of ‘the Annunciation to Mary’ that is set beside it as given us by Luke.

Because it is so familiar it is easy to miss the most important details of it. The greeting ‘Hail, gifted lady! The Lord is with you!’ addressed to Mary is closely dependent on a number of prophetic texts, as in Zechariah ‘Rejoice, heart and soul, daughter of Zion’ (Zech.9/9) , in Joel ‘Do not be afraid, be glad, rejoice for the Lord has done great things… (Joel 2/21,23) and in Zephaniah ‘Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,… The Lord, the King of Israel is in your midst (womb) …’ (Zeph.3/14-17). The prophetic hope is fulfilled in Jesus’ birth.

Mary is told that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow’. This echoes a whole number of texts in the story of the Exodus where the cloud, which overshadowed the people, expressed the presence of God, especially in the sacred tabernacle or tent of meeting. So we read ‘The Cloud covered the mountain, and the glory of the Lord settled upon the mountain of Sinai’ (Exodus 24/16), ‘however long the cloud stayed above the Tent of Meeting, the children of Israel remained in the camp … when it lifted they set out’ (Number 9/18-22) and many others. So Mary is seen as the meeting place, where we come into the presence of God.

The passage is also significant in contrast to the account of the annunciation to Zachariah of John’s birth. Mary is nobody, an unmarried woman, not a righteous man as in Zachariah’s case. Whereas he doubts the message, she enters into a dialogue and, once she understands what is being told her, she acquiesces. The fact that Mary, a ‘nobody’ has found favour with God is an indication of how Luke presents the Gospel, as a reversal of human expectations. Finally, unlike Zachariah, who is struck dumb because of his doubts, Mary, assured that her child will be the result of God’s intervention, replies in words that echo those of her son before his death ‘let it happen to me as you have said’.

This episode in Luke’s Gospel has had an incalculable influence in shaping Marian piety in subsequent generations, but we should never lose sight of its meaning for us. Mary, a woman and of no consequence in Jewish society, is overshadowed by the power of God and by her acquiescence to God’s request, as it were, she brings into the world the One who was expected, the anointed One, the Christ and Messiah.

We too, amazing as it may seem, since we are of no great consequence in the scheme of things, are overshadowed by the Spirit at our Baptism. Even though we are unaware of it, as Mary was, in that she shows no signs of being conscious of this overshadowing, we are made members of the Body of Christ, the Church by this overshadowing, by water and the oil of anointing. Like Mary, we are to be Christ-bearers, being his Body in the world and bringing his love to the world and, above all, being the sign and sacrament of his presence. Today, then as we remember this extraordinary reality in the ‘Angelus’, let’s give thanks that we too, like Mary, are called every day to repeat with her ‘Let it happen to me as you have said’, I accept your will for me today and every day, there be his presence by my love.

The antiphon that we sing today when we sing Mary’s Song at Evening Prayer is ‘O Clavis David’, ‘O key of David’. It reminds us that Jesus is the Key that unlocks all the mysteries of God and of our human life. He reveals to us all the mysteries of God in one simple but totally mind-blowing way that ‘God is Love’ and that it is in loving one another that we love God. Once the door is opened, it reveals to us the vast treasure house that is our Christian faith, the fruit of centuries of reflection on this essential mystery. It opens the door that leads us out of the darkness of selfishness and sin into the fullness of the life of love. It opens to us the way that leads on to an ever-greater understanding of God’s mysteries in an ever-growing awareness that the more we know, the more we recognize that we know nothing. Here it is then:


O royal power of the House of Israel;

What you open, no-one is able to close,

What you close, no-one can open


and lead forth from the prison of darkness

all those who are sit in the shadow of death.

Wednesday, December 21st, Wednesday before Christmas, ‘O Oriens’

Readings: Song of Songs 2/8-14 : Luke 1/39-45

Moving on from Mary’s becoming aware that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, we read today of her immediate reaction to hearing the other part of the message.  Yesterday we read how Mary was reassured of the authenticity of the message by the knowledge that another promise had been fulfilled. Her cousin Elizabeth, in spite of her old age and apparent inability to have a child, was to be the mother of John the Baptist. Mary’s immediate reaction is to set out to help the older woman in her pregnancy. It is in this encounter that Luke uses the dialogue between the two women to advance his story. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb leaps for joy and Elizabeth too is filled with the Holy Spirit. She reveals in what she says, the full significance of Mary’s pregnancy. She says the words that we all know so well, ‘You are blessed among women, and the fruit of your womb is blessed. How do I deserve to have the mother of my Lord visit me?’ The child in Mary’s womb is recognized by Elizabeth to be her Lord!  From the outset too, Mary is praised for her faith, because she has believed that what had been told her would be fulfilled. Later, Jesus too will praise Mary for her faith when he responds to the woman who says how blessed is the woman who gave him birth. ‘Rather are those blessed’ he will say ‘who hear the word of God and keep it’.

This beautiful episode in Luke’s account of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth has long been seen as the natural development of what we heard yesterday. Mary, overshadowed by the Spirit, brings the unborn Jesus to Elizabeth and both she and her child are also filled with the Spirit. So for us, the Church, overshadowed by the Spirit through the waters of Baptism and the anointing with Oil, are the means by which Jesus is made present in the world. This scene tells us what the role of the Church ought to be in our world. Our presence should be a source of joy for all those around us! With the Lord dwelling in our midst, we are to be the means by which his love and his message are brought to the world. Not by our words but by our very presence and our involvement with the world around us. If people are not glad to have us around, perhaps there is something wrong with us and, perhaps, we are not being what we ought to be, Jesus’ presence for all who come our way. What is true of us individually is, of course, even more true of our communities. What can we do about that?

The beautiful passage from that great love poem, the Song of Songs, echoes the cry of Elizabeth ‘I hear my Beloved. See how he comes’, but it also emphasises the fact that Jesus comes among us as a lover. He is the presence of the God who is in love with us, who can’t get enough of us, who never gives up on us, who says to us ‘Come then, my love, my lovely one, come’. This is what he says to us each day and at every moment, ‘Come, you whom I love more than words can say, you who are my heart’s delight, come’!

The great ‘O’ antiphon that we sing with Mary’s song this evening is the O Oriens’ ‘O Morning Star’ and again it cries out to the Lord to come, to come and enlighten us, we who live so often in the darkness of selfishness and sin and in the shadow of death rather than in the light of love.


You are the splendor of eternal light,

You are the Sun of Justice.


and shed your light on us

for we dwell in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

We also remember today Peter Canisius who was born in 1521 and became a Jesuit priest, giving his time above all to instructing people in their faith. He was also very concerned for those in prison and those who were sick, and his whole life was characterized by his gentle love for others. He was so famous that he has been called the second apostle of Germany since he was born in Nijmegen, which was then a German town. He died in 1597 after a stroke, which in spite of his being paralysed, did not prevent him still writing and teaching.

We pray then for the better instruction of ordinary Christian people and all those who seek to bring this about. We remember too, all whose lives are affected by strokes and those who care for them.

Thursday, December 22nd, Thursday before Christmas, ‘O Rex gentium’

Readings: 1 Samuel 1/24-28 : Luke1/46-56

The Gospel reading today follows on immediately from that of yesterday and Luke puts into Mary’s mouth the song that we know as the ‘Magnificat’, the song that has been part of Evening Prayer in the Western church for countless ages. The framework of this song is provided by the song of Hannah of whom we read in the first reading. It is her response to God’s granting her, in spite of her apparent barrenness, a child, Samuel (1 Samuel 2/1-10). Luke develops Hannah’s song by allusions to other sources such as the psalms.

This wonderful song not only gives thanks to God for what he has done for Mary herself but widens it out to include what God does for ‘all who fear him’ in every age. The song moves in stages from the reversal of Mary’s condition from lowliness to exaltation, to a general statement of God’s mercy to those who fear him, to a recital of his past and present reversals and finally to the statement of how that mercy is now being shown to Israel in fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham.

As the song moves outwards, Mary becomes the personification of Israel itself, and the mercy shown her reflects and exemplifies the mercy shown to the people. Moreover, the song speaks of God in words that will be applied later to the child she is carrying, he will be ‘Lord’ and ‘Saviour’ and ‘holy’.

The richness of this Song makes it every time we sing it, a source of inspiration and joy. It is a fitting conclusion to our Evening Prayer as we praise God for turning the whole world upside down, beginning with the maiden of Nazareth.

The ‘O’ antiphon with which we surround the ‘Magnificat this evening is the ‘O Rex gentium’, ‘O King of all the nations’. It reminds us that there is a longing in every human heart for that which makes sense of life and gives it meaning.  It opens up the way for us to reflect on the fact that the millions who follow different faiths and traditions are, at heart, all searching for the same thing, meaning in their lives. People find it in many different ways but, as we were reminded in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, there is truth in every faith and, indeed, a great deal that we have in common. This antiphon calls us to a dialogue with those of other faiths, and, indeed, of no faith, so that we may work together to find greater meaning in our own lives and to make our world a better place. The notion of the cornerstone reminds us of all that we share with our Jewish sisters and brothers. Jesus, the Jew, is the One who is the cornerstone between the two sides of the building, which is our common heritage. Again, a reminder to us that we are all one family and that we ought to be seeking ways and means to draw closer to those who are, as it were, our cousins in faith.

Lastly, this great antiphon recalls the story of creation and, in so doing, makes us aware of our relationship to the earth itself. As Pope Francis has reminded us so forcibly in ‘Laudato si’, the earth is our common heritage, and it is for us to preserve this great gift that God has made to us and to do this with people of every faith and none. The richness of this little antiphon should give us plenty to think and pray about today, but we must never forget that, though we call on the Lord to come, it is only through us that he will come, that he can come, to achieve all that this short prayer sets out as a programme. So it’s over to us once again! Here is the antiphon:


for you all have been longing,

you are the Cornerstone

that binds together in one

both Jews and Gentiles.


and save humankind

whom you formed from the slime of the earth.

Friday, December 23rd, Friday before Christmas, ‘O Emmanuel’

Readings: Malachi 3/1-4, 23-24  :  Luke 1/57-66

The Gospel reading completes the story of John the Baptist’s birth with the fulfilment of the prophecy made to Zachariah and the general rejoicing that accompanied John’s birth. When the eighth day arrives and the naming of the child should accompany his circumcision, firstly Elizabeth resists the pressure from her neighbours to call him after his father. Then Zachariah accepts God’s instruction, and his dumbness is lifted so that he can speak again. The extract ends with the people wondering what this child might turn out to be, given the extraordinary circumstances of his birth.

The reading from the prophet Malachi, answers their wondering. The prophet foretells one who would prepare the coming of the Lord. He will be another Elijah, all of which is fulfilled in John the Baptist. Zachariah’s first words, after he is released from his dumbness are words of praise for the God who sets his people free so that they may worship without fear. Zachariah’s release from muteness is expressed in praise. This whole scene is a foretaste of how Luke will present his story in terms of the God who upsets things and turns things upside down and who always achieves his purposes.

The ‘O’ antiphon today brings to an end the whole series in a great cry of longing for the one who will be ‘God with us’. If we open our hearts to his coming and allow him to govern our lives, his Law of love will bring us both freedom and fullness of humanity. Even without realizing it, all humanity longs for the coming of this reign of love, and he is the one who brings a way of life which will save all humankind from their foolishness and sinfulness.


our ruler and our lawgiver,

the hope of all the nations

and their Saviour,


and save us,

O Lord, our God.

We also remember John of Kanti today. Born in 1390, at Kanti in Poland, he came from an affluent family and after studying at the University of Cracow he was ordained priest. He became famous for his academic excellence but also for the austerity of his life and his almsgiving. He died in 1473 and was canonized in 1767. He was held in such high regard that his academic gown was used to vest each new doctor of the University of Cracow. We pray today for the Church in Poland and the Polish people, so many of whom live among us.

Saturday, December 24th, Christmas Eve

Readings: 2 Samuel 7/1-5, 8-11, 16 : Luke 1/67-79

The reading from the second book of Samuel tells of how David wanted to build a Temple for the Ark of God because he had already built himself a fine palace. When David shares his project with the prophet Nathan, the prophet tells him that God has revealed to him that he would not be the one to build a Temple but that God would, instead, bless his house, his family, which would be established for ever. In these words, we see the foretelling of the coming Messiah who would spring from the house of David.

The Gospel reading continues that of yesterday, and we hear Zachariah breaking into song with what we have come to know as the ‘Benedictus’. It is a great hymn of praise couched in a typically Jewish way. It begins with a blessing of God, a giving of thanks to God for his ‘visiting’ his people and for redeeming them. Strictly speaking, redemption means the buying off of a slave but here it infers the freeing of the people, so that they might serve God in holiness and righteousness. It then goes on speak of the Saviour, who comes in fulfilment of all the ancient prophecies, to save the people from their enemies, showing them mercy and keeping his covenant with them. It then focusses on the specific role of John the Baptist who will prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. This he will do by bidding them to seek forgiveness of their sins and so prepare them, not for violent revolt but to be led ‘into the way of peace’. The song ends by praising God for his mercy, through which the dawn from on high will break upon the people, so that those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death will be guided into the way of peace.

It is not surprising that this Song of Zachariah has found a place in the Morning Prayer of the Western Church for countless centuries as has Mary’s song at Evening Prayer. It is the ideal Prayer for the morning when we give thanks to God for all his goodness but above all for Sending us the Saviour. It is also a reminder that we too, have been chosen to prepare the way of the Lord by our lives and our love each day. Finally, as the day begins, we give thanks that the ‘dawn from on high’ has broken upon us and that, as the darkness lifts, the Lord enlightens and guides us this day and every day into the way of peace.

Today will, no doubt, be a busy one, as we prepare for Christmas day but let’s try to find a few moments of silence and peace when we can prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s birth tonight or tomorrow. It has, traditionally, been a day of fasting and so, let’s save all the good things for Christmas day and make this a day of simplicity and, perhaps, of deciding what we can give to those who are so much more needy than we are.

Evening Mass of Christmas Eve

Readings: Isaiah 62/1-5 : Acts of the Apostles 13/16-17, 22-25 :  Matthew 1/1-25

The readings for this evening Mass, unlike ordinary Sundays, are not the same as those for Christmas Day. In fact, they are a rather strange mixture of Advent and Christmas and they don’t have the flavour of Christmas at all, which may come as a disappointment to those who go to this Mass.

The reading from the prophet Isaiah is a song of splendid impatience as God breaks the silence of centuries. Zion’s vindication breaks forth with the suddenness of the desert dawn.  This extract seems to allude to the feast of Tabernacles when lights were kindled so that the whole place blazed ‘like a torch’. The reference to a ‘crown’ and a ‘diadem’ seem to refer to the practice of the pagan gods wearing a crown patterned like the city walls, and the crown that God wears will be patterned after his people. All the waywardness of the Jewish people will be forgotten, especially their worship of false foreign gods. The names that they bore of ‘Forsaken’ and ‘Abandoned’ will be changed for ‘My delight in her’ and ‘The wedded one’. Although they may seem odd to us, these are all names that were known and used among the Jews.

Adulterous Israel will be restored to that joyful innocent age of long ago when she was the virgin spouse of her God. We can see how these words are appropriate as we reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.

God is wedded to our humanity in the coming of Jesus, son of God and son of Mary. This is, in fact a wedding feast!

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us something of the preaching of the Gospel message by Paul and the apostles. After the long preparation of his people, Israel, God sends the promised Messiah, with John the Baptist to prepare the way for him. It is, as if, this reading makes us realise that Advent is at an end and after all our efforts at preparing for it, the feast of the Lord’s birth has, at last arrived.

Finally, in the Gospel reading, we hear again, that long genealogy from Matthew’s Gospel which traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, through David and with the addition of the unexpected women who make it quite clear that this child will be someone very different from what was expected. To make this clear, the Gospel writer tells the story of Joseph’s dream and the foretelling of the One who will be Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’, born of Mary by God’s own intervention.

If we are not going to mass this evening but at midnight or tomorrow, these readings are very suitable to help us prepare for the great feast itself.