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In this Update we turn our attention to the Scripture readings for Sundays of Advent 2006, offering a prayerful way to guide each week—s celebration of this holy season.

Catholic Update

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Advent: Celebrating Promise, Joy, Hope

By Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

Advent, the season of beginnings, contrasts with the end of our calendar year. Advent’s prayerful pondering is jarred by shopping and holiday preparation. A season of joy becomes a season of stress. Nevertheless, Advent is a time of expectant hope, when we look to the future and the past in order to focus on the present. God’s reign is in our midst!

In this Update we turn our attention to the Scripture readings for Sundays of Advent 2006, offering a prayerful way to guide each week’s celebration of this holy season.

First Week: A Season of Hope

SUNDAY: Jer 33:14-16; 1 Thes 3:12–4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

To appreciate the richness of this season of hope, the late Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, S.S., suggested that we begin Advent by reflecting on the meaning of gospel and by introducing the Gospel that will be the center of the new liturgical year that starts the first Sunday of Advent (this year it is the Gospel According to Luke).

At first glance, the Gospels seem to be biographies of Jesus’ life, but they are not. Official Roman Catholic teaching tells us that the Gospels are faith proclamations, stemming from the apostolic preaching about salvation in Jesus.

The Gospels embody three stages: the public ministry of Jesus, the preaching about Jesus, the writing of the gospels. The final two stages are periods of reflection, synthesis and interpretation, proclaimed with a post-resurrection perspective. Appreciating this complexity helps us to look for the meaning of the Gospel and not expect literal history. This view will be especially important when we consider the stories of Jesus’ birth.

The Gospel of Luke (along with Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles) was written sometime around the year 85, perhaps even later. It proclaims that the good news of Jesus is for all peoples. Some of Luke’s other emphases that we will hear in this coming year are compassion, prayer, the presence and role of women, special care for the poor. We will see this final point already in the Christmas story when the angel announces glad tidings to the shepherds!

On the first Sunday of Advent, the Church turns our attention to the God who fulfills promises and to the distant future, the end time, the return of the Son of Man. The apocalyptic style of the Gospel, with its dramatic images and symbols, communicated hope to fearful people by revealing how God would definitively save faithful people from evil forces.

Past, present and future, God comes to save us, strengthening our hearts with abundant love. During this first week of Advent, prayerfully ask yourself: What is my understanding of gospel? How is it good news? What are my fears? What are my hopes?

MONDAY: Is 2:1-5; Mt 8:5-11
TUESDAY: Is 11:1-10; Lk 10:21-24
WEDNESDAY: Is 25:6-10a; Mt 15:29-37
THURSDAY: Is 26:1-6; Mt 7:21, 24-27
FRIDAY: Gn 3:9-15, 20; Eph 1:3-6, 11-12; Lk 1:26-38
SATURDAY: Is 30:19-21, 23-26; Mt 9:35–10:1, 5a, 6-8

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Second Week: A History of Salvation

SUNDAY: Bar 5:1-9; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6

Our Advent readings frequently speak of time and history. This is not surprising, for both Judaism and Christianity believe that God works within history, freeing, choosing, loving and saving people in specific times and places. Advent is much more than preparation for a celebration of the nativity. Advent invites us to prepare again for the coming of the reign of God in our lives.

This Sunday’s first reading, from the Book of Baruch, returns to the past in order to move into the future. Baruch uses images of the return from exile in Babylon to speak about the new Jerusalem of the end time—and all this to stir up hope in the present. God’s faithful love leads the people home, in mercy and justice.

History is also a central element in Luke’s writings, a key for interpreting the action of God. Recall that the Gospel from last Sunday directed our attention toward the future, to the unknown time of the return of the Son of Man. In that passage Luke acknowledges that the end time is not imminent; he sees this period as a time for the Church’s mission and witness to the world.

This Sunday’s Gospel looks back to John the Baptizer (all the Gospels describe John’s ministry as setting the stage for Jesus). With almost solemn, if not perfectly accurate, historical details, Luke sets the stage for the action of God in John and then Jesus.

Do the words of Baruch and Isaiah, Luke and Jesus still speak to us? It is so easy to feel the opposite—hopeless and oppressed, like a people in exile. There are so many reasons: poverty, war, violence of all kinds, division and anger in our families and Church. How good it is, then, to ponder these words of hope and comfort, rooted in God’s faithfulness, words for us today. God continues to save us, to lead us from slavery to freedom at home and in our communities. God’s reign is in our midst!

This second week of Advent, ponder how God has been active in your history. Where do you experience light, joy, mercy and justice?

MONDAY: Is 35:1-10; Lk 5:17-26
TUESDAY: Zec 2:14-17 or Rv 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10a; Lk 1:26-38 or Lk 1:39-47
WEDNESDAY: Is 40:25-31; Mt 11:28-30
THURSDAY: Is 41:13-20; Mt 11:11-15
FRIDAY: Is 48:17-19; Mt 11:16-19
SATURDAY: Sir 48:1-4, 9-11; Mt 17:9a,10-13

Third Week: A Promise of Joy

SUNDAY: Zep 3:14-18a, Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

This Sunday’s Scriptures offer us a curious mix of joy and love along with profound challenge. The prophet Zephaniah lived around 625 B.C., a time of great political turmoil among the superpowers: Assyria, Egypt and Babylon. Israel suffered under these powers, and its people turned away from faithful religious observance. After a strong call to conversion, the prophet speaks a word of hope and promise.

What a wonderful word of comfort! “The Lord, your God, is in your midst. . . he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (3:17, 18).

Surely, then, we can rejoice, rooted not in some hollow optimism but in profound hope and promise. Our God is in our midst, renewing us in love. Surely, then, we can know peace, as Paul writes in his affectionate letter to the Philippians, a peace that surpasses all understanding. We can rejoice in the Lord always.

The mood switches as we turn to Luke. Here we meet again John the Baptizer, but now getting some sense of his strong message. We are reminded that discipleship has a cost. The haunting figure of John the Baptizer now stands in our midst, leading us to ask: “What then shall we do?” His response still rings true (a message to be affirmed by Jesus): generous care for those in need, fairness in business practice, no violence. Advent themes suddenly present us with profound social, economic and political challenges. Issues of global poverty and hunger, corporate corruption, and national policies of war and nuclear arms become gospel concerns.

No hunger, no cheating, no violence. What a challenge for us and our society! Paradoxically, accepting this challenge of discipleship leads to authentic joy.

This third week of Advent, in the midst of stress and consumerism, how will you respond to John and Jesus? “What then shall we do?”

MONDAY: Jer 23:5-8; Mt 1:18-25
TUESDAY: Jgs 13:2-7, 24-25a; Lk 1:5-25
WEDNESDAY: Is 7:10-14; Lk 1:26-38
THURSDAY: Sg 2:8-14 or Zep 3:14-18a; Lk 1:39-45
FRIDAY: 1 Sm 1:24-28; Lk 1:46-56
SATURDAY: Mal 3:1-4, 23-24; Lk 1:57-66

Fourth Week and Christmas: The Word Made Flesh

FOURTH SUNDAY: Mi 5:1-4a; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45

As we near the end of Advent, our Scripture readings turn to Christmas themes. Even though we merge the details into one story and crib scene, the originals (Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels with Christmas stories) are very different. The creche has both Magi and shepherds, but neither Gospel has both. Matthew focuses on Joseph, has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem, and includes the magi and the flight into Egypt. Luke focuses on Mary, has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth (going to Bethlehem for the Roman census), and includes the shepherds and a peaceful visit to Jerusalem.

The birth stories are first of all proclamations of faith, not exact historical accounts. The two stories do agree that the central meaning is about Jesus’ identity: He is Son of David and Son of God.

These infancy narratives also serve as a bridge from the Jewish Scriptures to the story of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospel writers made a summary of Old Testament stories and related that summary to the beginning of Jesus’ life. In Luke’s account, Elizabeth and Zechariah point to the much earlier story of Sarah and Abraham (see Gn 18:1-15 and 21:1-8). Mary’s Magnificat is closely patterned on the song of praise that Hannah recites after the birth of Samuel (1 Sm 2:1-10). Jesus is linked to and fulfills the Hebrew Scriptures.

Fr. Brown liked to call the infancy narratives “complete gospels.” They contain the basic revelation of the full identity of Jesus and the way in which the revelation was shared with the poor (the shepherds) and the non-Jew (the Magi).

Our Advent and Christmas readings have led us into holy mystery. God’s word comes deeply embedded in human words and in human flesh. Promise and meaning, hope and life, pregnancy and flesh—how wonderful that God so loved the world! How fortunate we are to hear and ponder this good news.

Still, the world is full of cynicism and suspicion, of oppression and violence, of sickness and death. It was for Micah and Isaiah, for Mary and Elizabeth, for John and Jesus. It is for us.

Right there in these difficulties God’s word comes embedded in human words and human flesh. Modern prophets creatively search for justice and peace. Family members choose to forgive old wounds. People of hope look for light in the darkness. Faithful disciples delight in the simple joy of children and in the warmth of good friends.

During these darkest days of the year in the North and in all our wintry seasons, we still live in a world of grace. God’s word in human words and human flesh—are we listening?

CHRISTMAS VIGIL: Is 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt 1:1-25
CHRISTMAS AT MIDNIGHT: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
CHRISTMAS AT DAWN: Is 62:11-12; Ti 3:4-7; Lk 2:15-20

Christmas Season: God’s Gift of Love

CHRISTMAS DURING DAY: Is 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18

God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life (see Jn 3:16). The Word became flesh not to suffer but to live and to share divine love.

John’s Gospel does not see Jesus’ life and death as atonement or ransom. There is instead emphasis on friendship, intimacy, mutuality, service, faithful love—revealing God’s desire and gift for the full flourishing of humanity, or in other words, salvation.

John’s meditation on God’s supreme act of love in the Incarnation (see Jn 1:1-18) provides the heart of this vision: that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation. Jesus’ life fulfills God’s eternal longing to become human, to share life and love in a unique and definitive way. God’s overflowing love, the very life of the Trinity, is expressed in creation, Incarnation and final fulfillment. Incarnation is God’s first thought, the original design for all creation.

Our Advent and Christmas prayer helps us appreciate this transformed image of God. God is not an angry or vindictive God, demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as a payment for past sin.

God is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love in creation and in the Incarnation (like parents sharing their love in the life of a new child). Such a view can dramatically change our celebration of Christmas, our day-by-day prayer, indeed our very understanding of God.

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati. Among his books and articles is “The Incarnation: Why God Wanted to Become Human,” Catholic Update (C1202), and Into the Abyss of Suffering: A Catholic View (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT:The New U.S. Catholic Catechism—An Introduction (by Carol Ann Morrow)

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