- Isaiah 61:10-62:3 & Psalm 148
- Galatians 4:4-7
- Luke 2:22-40
The Sunday after Christmas is traditionally observed as the Feast of the Holy Family. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the character of the family in which Jesus was born and nurtured, and also to reflect on our own families and households of whatever form they may be.
First Reading: Garments of salvation
It is always helpful to see the relationship between the first reading and the psalm or canticle that follows it. The psalm portion often offers some clue for interpreting or responding to the preceding reading. Even if we choose to make some other response to the reading, it is worth considering what link is suggested by the editors of the lectionary when they chose this psalm for that reading.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. [Isaiah 61:10-62:3]
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
This text expresses a deep joy at the action of God to rescue "the people who have walked in darkness" (Isa 9:2). It is well matched with the psalms listed in modern lectionaries.
These songs from the end of the great Isaiah scroll express a confidence in divine blessing that lies close to the heart of Jewish and Christian faith.
While the lectionary raids these chapters without regard to literary context in search of excerpts for use in Christian liturgies, many Christians maintain the false stereotype of Jewish faith as legalistic and grim. Few Christians can really grasp the idea that Jesus was a Galilean Jew. His sense of self, his spirituality, and his stunning insights into the generosity of God who welcomes sinners and sets a table for the unwashed, all came from his Jewish faith.
Lectionary editors who select snippets from the Old Testament without regard to their original context in order to provide an edited summary for use in Church demonstrate a cavalier approach to the sacred text. They stand in a long tradition of Christians using the Jewish scriptures in this way, and this may make us more understanding of the ways in which the NT writers cited, and at times misquoted, the Scriptures.
Rather than treating the OT like a theological quarry, we might honor the Jewishness of our Christ Child by appreciating the rich spiritual tradition to which he was heir.
Second Reading: Born of a woman
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [Gal 4:4–7]
This text from Galatians is the only mention of Jesus' birth in Paul's letters, and the only NT reference to his birth outside Matthew and Luke.
Paul is not setting out to discuss Jesus' birth. Rather, his point is that Jesus was born when God's time to act on our behalf had arrived. His primary focus in this brief section of Galatians is the adoption of multiple children by God, not simply the birth of Jesus.
Gospel: Luke 2:22-40
Luke's story of Jesus' birth
Ancient tradition and modern scholarship agree that Luke was written later than Matthew and, in some way or other, shares some of the same traditions in Matthew while also choosing to present some things differently.
While most NT scholarship still suggests a date for Luke-Acts in the final quarter of the 1C, there is also an increasing interest in the possibility that Luke-Acts was written in the first quarter of the 2C. Luke-Acts does seem to have a particular interest in presenting Christianity as a traditional religion that promotes harmony and social order. This is an emphasis that would have been especially relevant in the first quarter of the 2C, and it seems to fit with similar themes in the Pastoral Epistles and in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch.
It is not surprising that Luke begins with a story about Jesus' origins that is very different from the way Matthew tells the tale:
- Matthew writes for Christians with a strong Jewish heritage who are struggling with their expulsion from mainstream Jewish life. His story of Jesus' origins stresses the theme of biblical prophecies being fulfilled. It tells of murderous opposition from the Jewish rulers, culminating in a flight to Egypt to escape death. And it notes that the only ones to recognize the significance of the Christ Child were the pagan magi.
- Luke's story could not be more different. Luke provides a narrative that fits seamlessly with the biblical descriptions of life in earlier times. The parallel stories of John the Baptist and Jesus are models of biblical piety, and there is no sense of any tension between the Christ Child and his Jewish world. Luke has no threats from a hostile Jewish ruler. There are no foreign visitors, just local shepherds. Rather than fleeing to Egypt in search of refuge, Joseph and Mary remain in the Bethlehem area until after the circumcision of Jesus. The child is presented in the Temple, with prophetic acclamation of his significance, before the family returns to their original home in Nazareth.
Luke arranges his account of the childhood of Jesus in a series of events that parallel Jesus and John the Baptist: two boys whose special births are the prophetic signs of the dawning of a new age for all people.
- Scene 1 - John's miraculous conception (Luke 1:5-25)
- Scene 2 - Jesus' miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-38)
- Scene 3 - Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
- Scene 4 - John's birth and naming (Luke 1:57-80)
- Scene 5 - Jesus' birth and naming (Luke 2:1-21)
- Scene 6 - Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22-40)
- Scene 7 - 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
The point of these stories is not to describe the circumstances of Jesus' birth, but to promote an insight into the significance of Christianity. For Matthew, being a follower of Jesus involved alienation from one's original community and the discovery of a new identity alongside Gentiles. For Luke, being a follower of Jesus involved no threat to traditional social order and required no abandonment of the social obligations laid upon a good citizen.
This Christmas there will be some Christians for whom Matthew's experience of discipleship as challenge and confrontation will be all too real. And there will be others for whom Luke's interpretation of Christianity as hallowing everyday life and familiar commitments will be self-evident. In some congregations people with these different perspectives on life and faith will find themselves side by side.
The holy family
The family of Jesus has fascinated Christians from very early times, although not as early as many Christians may have imagined. Since it is common to assume that anyone who achieves significant things as an adult must have been special as a child, heroes inevitably attract legends about their birth and upbringing.
The biblical texts are very restrained in what they say about Jesus' immediate family. On balance, we have to concede that we do not know anything about Jesus' family beyond a few names, and they mostly derive from a single paragraph in Mark 6. The lack of information has not prevented pious imagination in the distant past and in recent times from imagining what Jesus' family and upbringing may have been like.
- Joseph is named as his father, although this sits awkwardly with the tradition of a virginal conception. Mary is named as his mother, sometimes as if his father was unknown. In Mark 6:3 Jesus is described as "the carpenter, the son of Mary, ...". Matthew would later correct that to read: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary?" (Matt 13:55) while Luke reduces it to "Is not this Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:22).
- The brothers and sisters of Jesus have been the focus for theological gymnastics by proponents of the perpetual virginity of Mary. In typical biblical fashion the sisters of Jesus remain unnamed. That silence can be seen as a prophecy of the treatment of women in the Christian community over most of the next 2,000 years. His brothers are named as James, Joses, Judas and Simon (Mark 6:3). Only James figures in the later traditions although Jude claims to have been written by the "brother of James" (presumably an oblique claim to be written by the brother of Jesus).
- Studies of first-century Galilee may be a more reliable source of information about the range of possibilities available for someone like Jesus in the first 25 years of the 1C. While we may wish to interview the retired teacher who once had Jesus in his synagogue class, we have to content ourselves with an informed appreciation of the dynamics of Jewish life in the villages of Galilee at the time. More on Palestine in the time of Jesus ...
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple
It is quite clear that we are not dealing with historical memories in this Lukan narrative, but with a highly symbolic story that affirms the essential continuity between the ancient Jewish tradition, the person of Jesus and the Christian community that emerged after Easter.
Unlike Matthew (who stresses the hostility of Jewish authorities to the Christ Child), Luke's entire infancy narrative gives the impression that the situation was rather different. Jesus is born into a family with traditional ties to the priestly caste (his mother's cousin is married to a priest serving in the temple) and the scene that provides today's Gospel is one of profound harmony as two ageing Jewish saints celebrate long-awaited arrival of the Saviour.
The underlying message that the God known to Christians in and through Jesus is the same God known to Jews long before (and long after) Jesus' birth is an important theological point for Christians to affirm and integrate into our attitudes towards other faiths, and especially Judaism. Of course, 2000 years after Jesus' birth we are no longer concerned, as Luke was, to defend the legitimacy of Christian faith; but rather need to turn Luke's metaphors around so they challenge our presumption of exclusive claims to knowledge of God.
The beautiful words that Luke places on the lips of Simeon have been prayed by millions of Christians over the millennia and should innoculate us against anti-Semitism and any vestiges of supersessionism:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;and for glory to your people Israel. [Luke 3:29-32]
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
- 367 Birth of Jesus - (1) Gal 4:4b; (2a) Matt 1:18-25; (2b) Matt 2:13-15; (2c) Matt 2:16-18; (2d) Matt 2:19-23; (3a) Luke 2:1-7; (3b) Luke 2:8-20; (3c) Luke 2:21-40; (?4) InJas 17:1-11; 19:1-19
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: