Commentary on the Readings
The Birth of the Lord (Mass of the day) – Year C
God has revealed His justice
From the beginning mankind’s history—the Bible tells us—is a series of sins. In Genesis chapter 6 the sacred author, with a bold anthropomorphism, says: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on earth and that evil was always the only thought of his heart. The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:5-6).
In the fullness of time, God has intervened to bring about justice. The responsorial psalm proposed to us by the liturgy says to reveal his justice to the eyes of the people.
We know of only one justice, the forensic one, the remunerative justice administered by judges in courts where punishments proportionate to the crime committed are applied. This is not God’s justice: “He is God and not man” (Hos 11:9). God does not respond to sin with retaliation and revenge but by giving the greatest proof of his love, giving to the world his Son.
Some theology of the past recklessly applied to God our justice and presented him as an executioner. It resulted into a Christianity dispenser of fear, not announcer of the Kingdom which is “justice, peace and joy” (Rom 14:17).
At Christmas, God reveals the immensity of His unconditional love. This is his justice. All people are invited to contemplate with wonder and let themselves be free from fear because “there is no fear in love. Perfect love drives away fear, for fear has to do with punishment: those who fear do not know perfect love” (1 Jn 4:18).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Oh Lord, how different from mine is your righteousness.”
In a dramatic day of July in the year 587 B.C. the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar opened a breach in the walls of Jerusalem and entered into the city. They burned the temple, the royal palace and the houses. They took all bodied men as prisoners and deported them to Babylon. They left alive in the country just a few of the poorest as tenants and farmers (2 Kgs 25:8-12).
In Babylon, the first years were hard, painful and sad. The lyrics of the famous exile’s song are its melancholy echo: “By the streams of Babylon, we sat and wept as we remembered Zion” (Ps 137:1). A disturbing question was added to the bitterness, humiliating defeat, the pain of the loss of loved ones, nostalgia for the land: why has the Lord abandoned us in the hands of our enemies?
They unanimously concluded that the dull and foolish rulers who have governed them were primarily responsible of the disaster. They did not listen to the prophets and led them to ruin, but we too are guilty. We become ensnared and we make too many iniquities. Who now can free us from slavery? Will the Lord be always angry with us? Has he repudiated his bride Israel forever?
The Lord’s answer was immediate: “Who could abandon his first beloved?—says your God—For a brief moment I have abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will gather my people … Though the mountains may depart and the hills be moved, but never will my love depart from you” (Is 54:6-10).
In fact, one day the Lord “has not forgotten his love or his faithfulness to Israel” (Ps 98:3) and decided to free his people. It is at this point of the story that our reading is inserted.
A prophet sent by God to preach the word of consolation to his people appears in Babylon. He is so convinced of the faithfulness of the Lord who speaks as if the exile had already ended. The future for him is already a reality. He sees the caravan of exiles heading to Jerusalem. A messenger precedes her; he runs, as if he had wings on his feet because he wants to be the first to give the good news of the arrival of the deportees.
The prophet envisions of contemplating the scene from the top of the mountain overlooking Jerusalem and exclaims: “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news, who herald peace and happiness, who proclaim salvation” (v. 7).
Then the “dream” continues. Joy explodes in the city. What happens? He observes and sees the sentries who examine the horizon from the top of the wall. Suddenly, behold they run to proclaim to all a good news: in the column of approaching people they recognized the exiles returning from Babylon.
At this point, the scene becomes great: The sentries see the Lord at the head of the caravan which triumphantly advances. He leads his people to Jerusalem (v. 8). He has never abandoned her. In vision, the prophet Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord departing from the destroyed holy city and following his people led into exile (Ezek 10:18-19; 11:22-23). Now they return together.
Slavery is over; suffering and humiliation are ended. The wicked leaders and kings, the villainous shepherds who had exploited and oppressed the people are gone forever. A new era starts, a realm in which the Lord will be established as guide of his people.
The reading concludes with an invitation directed by the Prophet to the ruins of Jerusalem: “Break into shouts of joy” (v. 9). The ruined walls will be rebuilt and all the peoples of the earth will behold amazed at the incredible work that the God of Israel was able to accomplish (v. 10).
This is the “dream” of the Prophet recounted in the reading. What really happened after that?
Around the year 520 B.C. a group of exiles left Babylon, but that was not the disappointment! Upon their arrival there was no explosion of joy. Their return was anything but a triumph. The reception was very cold, quarrels broke out between residents and the newly arrived. Was the prophet mistaken, was he fooled?
The people began to understand. The return from Babylon was only the image of another deliverance that God intended to accomplish. Israel would have preferred that the prophecy was immediately and literally put into force. She had understood it in a material sense. She thought that God would put his power at the disposal of her dreams of glory. She had got it wrong. It was another amazing “return” that God had in mind. This would provoke a universal, irrepressible joy.
One does not speak only with the tongue. A darkened face, a smile, a simple glance, a caress, a handshake, often communicate better than words what one has in mind and heart. A gift is loaded with messages, even when it is not accompanied by a card. Even silence can be “word”. In the famous story of Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb, after saying that God was not in the mighty wind, the earthquake and fire, the sacred text continues: “After the fire, the murmur of a gentle breeze” (1 Kgs 19:12). It was God who manifested himself in the silence ….
He intervenes in the world only through his word. The reading tells us that he addresses people in many different ways.
In ancient times he spoke through creation. That creation speaks of God is completely normal because it originated from his word. In all events, in all the phenomena of nature, in the rising sun, in the rain that irrigates the fields, in the smooth turn and ordering of the stars one can hear the message of God.
Whoever—perhaps distracted or entranced by the beauty of things—fails to capture this voice is called in biblical language “foolish.” Not evil or guilty, but “fool”, that is, unfortunate because, in his stupidity, he misses the meaning of everything that exists and happens. The author of the Book of Wisdom observes: “The natural helplessness of humans is seen in their ignorance of God. The experience of good things did not lead them to the knowledge of Him who is. They were interested in the works, but they did not recognize the author of them. If, charmed by such beauty, they took them for gods, let them know how far superior is their sovereign” (Wis 13:1,3).
This way of communicating through creation, however, is the less perfect. The people of Israel had the privilege of hearing the voice of God more clearly than the heathens: she heard it through the prophets (v. 1). The Lord manifested to these holy men his thought so that they would communicate it to the people. Amos said, “Yet the Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants, the prophets” (Am 3:7).
In the last few centuries before Christ, because of the unfaithfulness of man, heaven closes. God no longer sends His prophets and the people makes the painful experience of God’s silence. The prophet Amos foretold it: “Men will stagger from sea to sea, wander to and fro, from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Am 8:12).
O Lord of hosts, how long will your anger burn against the prayers of your people? (Ps 79:5). The pious Israelite begged him, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 63:20).
When the fullness of time came, while we were still his enemies (Rom 5:6), God tore the heavens and sent into the world his own son: his perfect image, his “Word” (vv. 2-3).
Jesus is the highest, clearest and most eloquent revelation of the Father. Seeing him one sees the Father (Jn 14:9). He is the brightness that shone from the Father—even as Paul says—“God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness has also made the light shine in our hearts to radiate and to make known the Glory of God, as it shines in the face of Christ’” (2 Cor 4:6).
The last part of the reading (vv. 4-6) stresses the incomparable superiority of the revelation obtained through Jesus. The Jews claimed that God had spoken to them using even the angels. The author of the letter argues: Jesus is vastly superior to the angels. As evidence he cites three texts of Scripture, and concludes: “All the angels of God adore him.”
All authors treat with special emphasis the first page of their books because it constitutes the presentation paper of the whole work. It has to be not only pleasant and attractive, but good. It also hints the essential issues that will be dealt with later. It is a way to whet the interest and curiosity of the reader.
To introduce his gospel, John composes a so sublime hymn, so high as to merit him, rightly, the title of “eagle” among the evangelists. In this prologue, as in the overture of a symphony, it is possible to understand the reasons that will be taken up and developed in the following chapters: Jesus sent by the Father, source of life, light of the world, full of grace and truth, the only Son in whom the glory of the Father is revealed.
In the first stanza (vv. 1-5) John seems to take off from an image dear to the wisdom and rabbinic literature. The “Wisdom of God” depicted as a beautiful and delightful woman. Here’s how the “Wisdom” introduces herself in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created me first at the beginning of his works. The abyss did not exist when I was born. The mountains were not yet set in their place, nor the hills when I was born. I was there when he made the skies, when he made the sea with its limits, when he laid the foundation of the earth, I was close beside him” (Prov 8:22-29).
It is a personification echoed in the book of Sirach, which states that Wisdom embodied herself in the Torah, the Law, and set up her tent in Israel (Sir 24:3-8,22).
John knows these texts well and—perhaps even with a little polemic against Judaism—he retakes them and applies them to Jesus. He is—he says—the Wisdom of God who came to make his dwelling among us. It’s him, and not the Mosaic law, who reveals to people the face of God and his will. He is the Word, the last and final Word of God. He is the same Word by which God in the beginning created the world.
Not only that! Unlike the personified Wisdom (Sir 24:9), the Word of God—that in Jesus became flesh—has not been created, but “was” with God, existed from eternity and was God. For Israel Wisdom is “a tree of life to those who clasp it” (Prov 3:18). John makes it clear: the Wisdom of God manifested itself fully in the historical person of Jesus. He is, no longer the law, the source of life.
The coming of this Word in the world divides history into two parts: before and after Christ, darkness without him, light where he is. Word that, like a sword, penetrates deep within every person and separates in him what is “son of light” and what is “child of darkness.” The darkness will try to overpower this light, but it will not succeed. Even the negative response of man will suffocate it and eventually the light will prevail in the heart of each of us.
The second stanza (vv. 6-8) is the first narrative interlude that introduces the figure of John the Baptist. It does not say that “he was with God.” John is just a man raised up by God for a mission. He was to be a witness to the light. His role is so important that it is underlined three times. He was not that Light, but was able to recognize the true light, and to point him to all.
The third stanza (vv. 9-13) develops the theme of Christ—the light and the people’s response to his appearance in the world.
The hymn opens with a cry of joy: “The true light was coming to the world.” Jesus is the true light, as opposed to the illusory glitters, to wisps, mirages, the misleading glow projected by the wisdom of people.
A lament immediately contradicts this enthusiastic cry: “the world did not know him.” It is the rejection, opposition, closure to the light. People loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (Jn 3:19).
Not even the Israelites—“his own people”—welcome him. Yet they would have recognized in Jesus the ultimate manifestation, the embodiment of the “Wisdom of God”, that wisdom that “among all the people had sought a resting place in which to settle,” and just in Israel she had found her home. The Creator of the universe had given her this order: “Pitch your tent in Jacob; Israel will be your homeland” (Sir 24:7-8).
The rejection of light and life by people, even the most prepared and well-disposed, is surprising. Jesus, too, will be surprised one day of his own countrymen’s incredulity (Mk 6:6). This means that the light that comes from above is not imposed, does no violence, leaves free but places people before an inescapable decision: they must choose between “blessing and curse” (Dt 11:27), between “life and death” (Dt 30:15).
The verse ends with the joyful vision of those who believed in the light. Believing does not mean giving one’s own intellectual approval to a package of truth, but to accept a person, the Wisdom of God, who identifies himself with Jesus.
To those who trust in him shall be granted an unheard “right”: to become children of God. It is the rebirth from above of which Jesus will speak to Nicodemus (Jn 3:3), rebirth that has nothing to do with the natural birth which is linked to sexuality, to the will of man. The generation from God is of another order; it is the work of the Spirit.
The fourth stanza (v. 14): “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” It is the highlight of the whole prologue. They are the gospel’s words we will listen on our knees. The first Christians are still full of admiration before the mystery of God who for love strips himself of his glory, empties himself and takes up his abode under our tent.
“Meat” in biblical language indicates the man in his appearance of being weak, fragile, perishable. One senses here the dramatic contrast between “flesh” and “Word of God” expressed so effectively in the famous passage from Isaiah: “All flesh is grass and all its beauty as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will forever stand” (Is 40:6-8).
When John says that the “Word” became flesh he does not simply state that he took a mortal body, overlaid with muscles, but he became one of us, who became like us in all (including feelings, passions, emotions, cultural conditioning, tiredness, fatigue, ignorance—yes, also ignorance—and then the temptations, the inner conflicts …. Exactly like us in all things but sin.
“And we have seen his glory.” Biblical man was conscious that the human eye is unable to see God. One may only contemplate his “glory” that is, the signs of his presence, his works, his acts of power in favor of his people. “I will have glory at the expense of Pharaoh, his army, his chariots, and horsemen” (Ex 14:17).
The expressions filled with intense emotion of the first letter of John are echoed in this phrase of the prologue: “That which has been from the beginning, and what we have heard and have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, I mean the Word who is life….The Life made itself known, we have seen Eternal Life and we bear witness, and we are telling you of it. It was with the Father and made himself known to us. So we tell you what we have seen and heard, that you may be in fellowship with us, and us, with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. And we write this that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:1-4).
John speaks in the plural because he intends to report the experience of the Christians of his community. With the eyes of faith, they are able to grasp, beyond the veil of the “flesh” of Jesus humiliated and crucified, the face of God.
The Lord has often manifested His glory with signs and wonders, but he never revealed himself so clearly as in his “only begotten Son, full of grace and truth.” “Grace and Truth” is a biblical expression which means “faithful love”. We find it in the Old Testament when the Lord appears to Moses as “the God full of pity and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in truth and loving-kindness” (Ex 34:6). The fullness of God’s faithful love is present in Jesus. He is the irrefutable proof that nothing can overwhelm the goodness of God.
The fifth stanza (v. 15) is the second intermission. The Baptist reappears and this time he speaks in the present: “testifies” on behalf of Jesus. He “shouts” to people of all times that He is unique.
The sixth stanza (vv. 16-18) is a song of joy wherein the community’s gratitude to God for the gift received overflows. Incomparable gift. The law of Moses was also a gift of God, but was not definitive. The external provisions it contained were not able to communicate the “grace and truth”, that is, the force that enables man to respond to the faithful love of God. “Grace and truth” are given through Jesus. His name appears here for the first time.
No one has ever seen God. It is a statement that John often recalled (5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12,20). It is already found in the Old Testament: “You cannot see my face—God says to Moses—because man cannot see me and live” (Ex 33:20).
The events, apparitions, visions of God told in the Old Testament were not of the materials visions. They were a humane way to describe the revelations of the thoughts, the will, the plans of Lord.
But now looking at Jesus one can actually and concretely see God. To know the Father one needs not do philosophical reasonings or lose oneself in elaborate discussion. It is enough to contemplate Christ, to observe what he does, what he says, what he teaches, how he behaves, how he loves, whom he prefers, people he frequents with, with whom he goes to dinner, whom he chooses, rebukes and defends. It’s enough, above all, to contemplate him in the height of his “glory” when he was lifted up on the cross. In that highest manifestation of love the Father has said it all.