Sean Goans book offers short helpful explanations of the readings used on Sundays during Year C of the liturgical cycle. For many lay people who have little or no training in theology, including readers, the readings can be difficult to understand, so this book gives an introductory article about the use of the Bible at Mass and helpful comments on each reading with a reflection for each Sunday.
Sean Goan lives in Dublin and teaches at Blackrock College and part-time at Milltown Institute. He studied scripture in Rome, Jerusalem and Chicago.
- Chapter One THE SEASON OF ADVENT
THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
This prophecy from the prophet Jeremiah is to be found at a part of the book when the people of Jerusalem have been told that their city and many of its inhabitants are to be destroyed by the Babylonian army. Nonetheless the prophet holds out a vision of hope for the future. God will be shown to be faithful to his word. He will raise up from the house of David a king fit to rule in Israel, recalling the promise made to David (2 Samuel 7). This king will rule according to the covenant virtues of honesty and integrity, unlike the succession of kings whose corruption has brought the people and the city to ruin. The word spoken by Jeremiah would come to fulfillment in a most surprising way in the person of Jesus, Son of David.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
This is the earliest letter written by Paul in the New Testament and it was to a church he established in the northern Greek city of Thessalonica. It is clear from reading the letter that one of the concerns of these early Christians was the imminent return of Jesus. This was expected both by Paul and his converts and so many of their questions were about how they should spend their lives now. Pauls advice is totally rooted in their daily lives for he tells them that the important thing for them is that they continue to grow in love. He does not want them to engage in any extreme religious practices but simply to live according to the gospel message of Jesus.
Gospel: Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
This passage is taken from a chapter dealing with both the medium and long term future for believers in which Jesus recognises that although he has come to bring freedom and peace, that does not mean there will be an immediate end to violence and suffering. The language is that of apocalyptic which is a type of writing aimed at encouraging people to believe in Gods ultimate victory, the triumph of good over evil. By the time that Lukes gospel was written, people were wondering when would Jesus return and how would they know. Here they are reminded that the key thing is not to be able to tell the future but to be faithful to the way of Jesus, especially a prayerful way of reflecting on the times we live in.
You might be wondering how are these readings supposed to help us get ready for Christmas? Well, they do this by reminding us that Advent is a time of waiting - a getting ready for the return of Jesus - not just a recalling of the first Christmas but a preparation for the fact that he will come again. So the focus for us at the start of each Advent is the invitation to prayerful taking stock of how ready are we, as individuals and as a church, to receive him however, wherever and whenever he comes to us.
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
The book attributed to Baruch (the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah) is not considered as inspired scripture by Protestant churches but it has been part of the Catholic canon since earliest times. It is not known where or when it was written but it clearly appeals to people who have had to live away from the Promised Land. In this reading Jerusalem, the Holy City, is addressed and given a message of hope which is proclaimed through poetic images of the return of the exiles. There is a wonderful sense of joy and an awareness of the saving presence of God bringing about the transformation of his broken-hearted people. This transformation is due to the peoples repentance and their desire to live with integrity.
Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11
Although written to a different community and at a later date, this extract from Paul has links with last Sundays reading. Here once again Paul is writing to a church which he founded and for which he has deep personal feelings, and here too he wants to ensure that his converts are living and behaving in a way which will prepare them for the second coming of Christ, an event that Paul believed would occur in the not too distant future. To this end his prayer is that they will continue to grow in love, but this time he is also praying that they will increase in knowledge. He believes that if they grow in the understanding of their faith then they will live better lives and that is the only preparation for the coming of Christ that really matters.
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
Luke begins his account of the ministry of Jesus by putting it in its historical context. He tells us about who was in charge in the worlds of politics and religion and then introduces us to someone who was something of a threat to them both. John the Baptist is presented as inviting the people to repent, to turn again to God and to show their desire to do this by being baptised - a symbolic washing. In so doing John is seen as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in which there is a call to remove every obstacle that might stand in the way of God showing his salvation to his people. This gospel reminds us of one of the key themes of Advent: repentance.
Repentance and its associated colour purple remind many people of the season of Lent rather than Advent but it is not difficult to see why it is so central to our preparation for the coming of Jesus. Without it, the season of Christmas can simply slide into an excuse for over-indulgence, an opportunity to party in an effort to get over the darkness of winter. These readings show the true meaning of repentance, for they speak about leaving aside anything that might blind us to what God wants for us, and opening ourselves to something new and wonderful and beyond our wildest dreams: God coming in the person of his Son.
THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18
Zephaniah was probably a prophet around the same time as Jeremiah and so the context for his preaching was the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 587 Be. While this
short book contains many warnings about the need for repentance before the day of Gods judgement, it concludes with the hope filled passage which we read today. It looks forward to a time of rejoicing in Jerusalem when the Lord will be in their midst not as judge but as a warrior who dances for joy because of the victory he has won for his people. They have no more evil to fear but are renewed by the saving love of their God.
Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
Paul usually devotes the last part of his letters to exhorting his readers to continue in the way of faith upon which they have set out. In the letter to the Philippians this exhortation is particularly enthusiastic. He wrote this letter from prison and indeed may have thought that his own execution was at hand. This may explain why he writes so movingly in the letter about his love for the community. Having reflected on how he has lived his life for the gospel, he has no regrets and he does not want the Philippians to be sad. Rather they should be happy because the good news by which they live is a source of joy. Whatever troubles they do have they can bring before the Lord in prayer, confident that the God of peace who has brought them to this point will not abandon them.
Gospel: Luke 3:10-18
John the Baptists role as the preacher of repentance is highlighted here in the practical advice given to those who are stirred by his preaching and who ask the all important question - what must we do? In keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament, any religion that is worthy of the name must relate to life as it is lived. It must impact on the way we deal with our neighbours, how we use our influence in relation to people we work with or have power over. In practical terms, this means sharing what we have and not exploiting or taking advantage of anyone. This is not an optional extra - it is the only way to live an authentic faith and indeed, as in Johns time so also in ours, it is the only way to prepare properly for the coming of Jesus.
The third Sunday of Advent is known as rejoicing Sunday because of the predominance of this theme in the readings. We are drawing close now to the feast of Christmas and it is a call to joy and heartfelt happiness because the God who spoke through the
Law and the prophets will now be in the midst of his people. He will not appear in the form of a victorious warrior but as a child, the prince of peace, who will seek to change our hearts by his unconditional love.
THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
First Reading: Micah 5:1-4
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, preaching towards the end of the eighth century in the kingdom of Judah. He, like so many of the prophets, was keenly aware of the injustices which were taking place in the land. He was also very aware that the covenant was the only hope for the Israelites. Despite the shortcomings of the people and the inevitable consequences of their sins, God would always be faithful. In this reading he recalls the hope that God would once again give Israel a king like David who came from Bethlehem. This future king will be a true shepherd to his people and will guide his flock in the ways of God, bringing them to true peace.
Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
The Letter to the Hebrews is more of a profound sermon than an epistle and was written to convince Jewish believers in Jesus that he was indeed their long awaited Messiah. The extract today is a very fitting reading as we draw near to Christmas. It emphasises a truth that was expressed in the prophets and psalms. Put simply: God is more interested in the humble offering of the self in obedience to his word than in a thousand offerings of bulls and goats. This is precisely what is found in the life and death of Jesus, and the author of Hebrews quotes from Ps 40 to prove his point. Jesus came to do the will of God and that will is expressed in all his words and deeds of love.
Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
Along with John the Baptist, Mary the mother of Jesus is the other key figure in Advent. As John urged us to repentance so Mary is put before us in Lukes gospel as the woman of faith, the one whose trusting yes to God opened up the way for the wonderful mystery of the incarnation. In this text, Mary and Elizabeth, the two pregnant women both witness to the power and fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit as they recognise the amazing way God is at work in them, and respond with joy. Throughout the gospel of Luke the role of the Spirit will be emphasised and the reader will be constantly reminded that being faithful to Gods will requires an openness to the promptings of the Spirit.
Today Bethlehem is not a particularly impressive town. The only lasting sign of an earthly king is the distant tomb of King Herod the Great which rises on the horizon as an impressive monument to human vanity and oppressive rule. The irony is that even as Herod was having it built a child was born in a cave only a few miles away who, without the use of military force or the power of wealth, would show the world a different way. He would live his life in love as a simple offering to God. In the person of Mary and her simple yes to God we are reminded that there is only one present that matters this Christmas and that is the gift of ourselves.
Chapter two: THE FEAST OF CHRISTMAS
The Readings for the Masses of Christmas are the same for each year of the liturgical cycle.
THE VIGIL MASS
First Reading: Is 62:1-5
The original setting for this reading was the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. The whole experience of war and deportation had been a painful reminder to the people of their failure to live according to the ways of the covenant, but now God speaks to them again about the desire of his heart which is that they should come to know their true worth and how much their God longs to be one with them, just like a bridegroom longs for his bride. The sending of Gods son is the ultimate proof that God wants us to know our true worth.
Second Reading: Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
In this reading we read a section of a speech given by Paul during his first missionary journey. The town of Antioch in Pisidia was situated in what is now S. W. Turkey and, as was customary for Paul when he came to a town, he preached first in the synagogue, to the local Jewish population. Appropriately for today he preaches that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the long awaited promise made by God that a son of David would be their Messiah and Saviour.
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25
It is suggested that the short form of this gospel may be used, namely verses 18-25. The reason is clear enough as these tell Matthews account of how Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Matthew emphasises that Jesus is the fulfilment of the scriptures, especially the important verse in Isaiah 7:14. He explains that the child will be called Jesus (Hebrew Joshua) because this name means God saves but in the quotation we are given another name Emmanuel - God is with us. The two are fitting for Jesus because one describes what he does and the other who he is. The earlier part of the reading giving the genealogy of Jesus is Matthews way of affirming that the God who guided the people of Israel through all their troubled history is active in the birth of Jesus. Just as some of Jesus ancestors were born in unusual or even scandalous circumstances, so too Jesus comes in an unexpected way.
First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-7
The historical setting for this passage is towards the end of the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. The people have been through years of warfare and bloodshed and the threat of invasion by Assyria remains. Into this situation comes the kings son Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah sees in him a brighter future in which the oppression of recent years ceases and the people can look forward to a time of peace and justice. While the reign of king Hezekiah was an improvement on what went before, it still proved to be a disappointment and so in later years the prophets words came to be seen as a reference to an ideal king. The early church saw in this text a prophecy about Jesus, the son of David who revealed himself as Mighty God and Prince of Peace. The people who have walked in darkness are all those who have waited for Gods intervention in the history of the world and now they can rejoice because on this holy night a child is born for us. The imagery is rooted in the change that is brought about when war ends and a new day dawns, and so it captures perfectly the longing that still exists for a time when all people can live in peace, and that is surely the heart of our prayer at Christmas.
Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14
Titus, who was charged with the care of the church in Crete, had been a fellow worker with Paul and in this letter he is encouraged to be faithful to his task and to preserve the community from the false teaching which would distort the message of the gospel. These verses are appropriate for today because they remind us that even at Christmas it is the work of Christ as risen saviour that we recall, and the stress is on our response to him. Welcoming the child born in a stable means more than mere sentiment. Our lives must change as we continue to hope for his return among us.
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14
Luke puts his account of the birth of Jesus in the context of the rule of the emperor Augustus. He is the ruler of the world and the one credited with bringing peace to the empire, yet now in the humblest of circumstances a child is born whose rule will never end and whose power derives not from military might nor economic wealth. He is the true saviour whose birth is a cause of joy in heaven and on earth and is first announced to the disenfranchised.
THE DAWN MASS
First Reading: Isaiah 62:11-12
This short reading, taken from the near the end of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, returns to a favourite theme of the prophet: the faithfulness of God who more than anything wants to save his people from all that would keep them from knowing that they are indeed his beloved children. The daughter of Zion is a reference to the people of Jerusalem, the city of God that for too long has suffered the consequences of war and violence. New names are given here to symbolise the true identity of Gods chosen people.
Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
Again in this reading the Christmas message is presented to us in terms of whole story of the good news. Gods gift of his Son and the pouring out of his Holy Spirit are based solely on the compassion of the Father. The birth of Jesus is the setting in motion of this one great act of God by which we might come to know our true worth. This is why Christmas is such a wonderful feast.
Gospel: Luke 2:15-20
This is a continuation of the gospel used at midnight Mass and tells how the shepherds went immediately to Bethlehem. There they find things as the angels had told them. The gospel offers two responses to the unfolding story. One is that of Mary who treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart, and the other is that of the shepherds who went away glorifying and praising God. As people of faith participating in this feast, we are invited to do the same. Christmas is a time for praise and thanksgiving to God but it is also an invitation to reflect deeply on the mystery that is being put before us.
MASS DURING THE DAY
First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
Once again the writings of Isaiah are called upon to bring out the meaning of Christmas and this time we are presented with a message of salvation aimed at the war weary citizens of Jerusalem. After the failure of so many human kings to guide them in the way of peace, now at last, God himself, their warrior king, is coming to console his people and to rule over them.
Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-6
The opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews sum up in a very simple yet profound way how the early church viewed the coming of Christ. While the prophets of old spoke in a powerful way about the saving will of God and his faithfulness, they never imagined how that will would be finally accomplished and that faithfulness displayed. This is the amazing truth that has been revealed in the person of Jesus who is the radiant light of Gods glory and who is therefore greater than any angel or prophet.
Gospel: John 1:1-18
The gospel of John has no account of the birth of Jesus, rather the evangelist chooses to begin his story with a poem and that is the gospel for this Mass. Rather than considering the life of Jesus from the time of his birth, John seeks to explore his identity by meditating on Jesus as the Word made Flesh. The Jews to whom the good news was first preached were very familiar with the idea of the word of God through their oral and written traditions. For generations God had made himself and his saving will known to them through his word and now that word becomes human, and as a human being reveals the glory of God in a way that is beyond our wildest imaginings. This is a staggering claim and one that many then, and indeed still today, find too hard to believe. Yet it is the very heart of the Christmas message.
There is a remarkable variety in the twelve readings that are given for the Christmas Masses. One of the most striking things about them is that only three of them actually tell the Christmas story. The other nine are taken from both Old and New Testaments and in different ways invite reflection on the feast that is being celebrated. They all challenge us to move beyond the sentiment of the nativity play and to make our own this truth that we dare not believe. By this flesh taking everybody and everything is made sacred, and if we accept this then we must live differently in the world for it really is a beautiful and a holy place and all the cruelty and injustice that surround us cannot be allowed to erase that.
THE FEAST OF THE HOLY F AMIL Y
First Reading: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
This reading brings us the second half of a story of a womans faith and perseverance. The woman is Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who was to become one of the greatest leaders of the chosen people. We are told in the first part of the story that Hannah was barren and that she had prayed fervently to the Lord that she might conceive. So earnest was her prayer that the priest at the shrine rebuked her for what he thought was a drunken outburst. However, her prayer was heard and in keeping with the covenant law Hannah, who had longed for the child so much, gave him over to the Lord when he was weaned. This generous spirit will also be evident in todays gospel when Mary and Joseph learn of Jesus call to do the will of his Father.
Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2,21-24
In this reading John invites the community to reflect on just how much God has loved them. Through Jesus they have become children of God - they are united to him in a unique and special way. This is their new-found identity and should be a cause of rejoicing for them. Nor should they be concerned that they are living in a hostile environment. This same world did not acknowledge Jesus relationship to the Father, so then it is not surprising that it does not honour his followers. In addition to being Gods children now they can also look forward to that time when this relationship will come to its full flowering when they are in complete and full union with the Father. At that time they shall see him as he is and so become fully who they are meant to be. Since they are children of the truth then their love must show itself in practical deeds and not be just talk. This in turn gives them confidence to come before God to ask him for their needs. God will answer their prayers because they are keeping the commandments and these can be reduced to two: that we believe in Jesus and that we love one another as he told us to.
Gospel: Luke 2:41-52
The story of Jesus being lost in the Temple is, like the story of his birth, all about his identity. At the age of twelve as a Jewish boy Jesus would have celebrated his bar mitzvah. This meant he was allowed to read the scriptures in the synagogue and was recognised as taking his place among the community of adult men. As such it was right that he should go Jerusalem for Passover, but what unfolded there was an indication that his life would be given over to doing the will of his Father. For Mary this is another stage in her relationship with her son and another invitation to ponder how God is at work in her life.
In a changing world, where the very notion of the family is under so much pressure, it is appropriate during the Christmas season to celebrate this feast. Some may ask, however, what can the image of Holy Family of Nazareth say to the modern world and to parents struggling in this climate of change? The women in todays readings teach us a timeless lesson about faith in action. Both Hannah and Mary knew the experience of hardship and rejection, yet in all the circumstances of their lives they put their trust in God and acted according to his word. The second reading reminds us that the most potent image of Gods love is that of the parent for the child. We are the children of God and the place where we live that out first and foremost is in our families. Samuel and Jesus learned all about self-giving from their parents.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
First Reading: Ecclesiasticus 24:1-2,8-12
This book, also known by the Hebrew name of its author, Sirach, is one of the latest books of the Old Testament, being written around 190 BC Sirach, as well as being very familiar with the traditions of his own people, was also aware of the influence of Greek philosophy on the Jews of his time and so he sought to present the faith of Israel in a way which showed that it was superior to the arguments of their pagan neighbours. The extracts in todays reading come from the climax of the book in chapter 24 where we find a poem in praise of the wisdom of God. As had happened earlier in the Old Testament, the idea of wisdom is personified (Proverbs 8) and described as a woman who was Gods instrument at the moment of creation. Sirach then develops this idea and says that later on wisdom was directed by God to come and live on earth. This wisdom was then to be found in Israel and its holy book, the Torah. It is clear that for the evangelist John this notion of Gods wisdom pitching its tent on earth allowed him to see Jesus as the Word (or wisdom) of God made flesh who lived among us (literally who pitched his tent among us).
Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18
Unlike the other letters of Paul, there is no reference in Ephesians to the specific problems of a local Christian community or church and so it is thought that this letter may have been intended as a circular to be read as widely as possible in the early church. The opening verses are a hymn of praise in which the apostles enthusiasm for all that God has done for us in Jesus spills over into a wonderful prayer of blessing. We are encouraged to recognise that through Christ we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. In other words, in giving us his OWn son God has held back nothing in his desire that we should live through love in his presence. After praising God, Paul then turns to praying for all who follow Jesus and he asks that they be given the wisdom to understand just what it is that they have entered into, and in this prayer too Pauls excitement at what it means to be a Christian is once again very evident.
Gospel: John 1:1-18
This is the text used for the Christmas day Mass (see above).
With these readings we are reminded again just how profoundly beautiful the feast of Christmas is. All human life is given a dignity which, if we take time to reflect upon it, transforms our understanding of ourselves and those around us. The light breaks through into our fragile human hearts and shows us what is possible if we only have the courage to believe in what God has done and continues to do for us through his Son.
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
The First Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Is 40:1-5, 9-11
While the book of the prophet Isaiah is the longest in the Bible, containing 66 chapters, it is generally acknowledged that only the first 39 come from the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The second section of the book (chs 40-55), known as Deutero-Isaiah, was written by an unnamed author towards the end of the Babylonian exile, i.e. around 540 BC It reflects the hope which surrounded the edict of Cyrus, the Persian emperor who allowed the Jewish exiles to go home and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Todays reading calls the people to an awareness that their time of sadness is over. God has seen their repentance and is now going to bring them back home across the desert. In this wondrous event, the glory of God will be revealed for he will be seen both as the warrior who fights on behalf of his people and the shepherd who guides and nourishes them. The verses which call for a time of preparation were later seen as a prophecy concerning the work of John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
This is one of the so-called Pastoral Epistles, the others being 1 and 2 Timothy. They were written to individual leaders of communities to help and guide them. The reading is a reminder that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a model for our own lives. For in its entirety the whole Christ-event points to Gods desire to bring all humanity to an awareness of himself and his love. As we respond to Christ, our lives must reflect the spirit of self sacrifice which is so evident in his life. This is possible because of the gift of the Holy Spirit which we have received. We are all our on a journey towards our true home which is with God, and it is Jesus who, sharing both our frail human condition and his empowering Spirit, enables us to find the way.
Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
The baptism of Jesus is an important event in each of the gospels, heralding as it does the beginning of Jesus public life and marking him out as the beloved of God. Lukes account of the baptism does not focus on the event itself but on its aftermath, i.e. the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus while he was at prayer. In describing it in this way, the evangelist is highlighting two themes that are central to his gospel. These are the role of the Spirit and the importance of prayer in Jesus life. For Luke the fact that they are important in the life of Jesus means that they must also be important in the lives of his followers.
In remembering this incident, we are being asked not only to believe it of Jesus but also to recognise it as our own story. Through baptism, each of us has become a beloved son or daughter of God and it is an awareness of this reality which becomes the driving force in our lives as Christians. The image of God as shepherd and defender is one that we need to consider as we recall our own baptism, for the God who calls us is not some distant disembodied voice but the parent, friend and guide who says to us you are my beloved. It was while at prayer Jesus became aware of the power of the Spirit within him and today we too are invited to pray for an understanding of what the Holy Spirit is offering us and asking of us.