Spiritual Reflections: To fully appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, we must first appreciate Matthew's place in history.
What do this Sunday's readings say to us today? Where are we to look for the light of our world?
In our first reading, Isaiah's solution to superficial religiosity that does not illuminate has nothing to do with more prayers or pious self-mortification; he beckons us to venture beyond our comfortable home territory into the foreign lands of the less fortunate. Isaiah teaches that our light will shine when it has been kindled by the experience of sharing with those who know needs we have not experienced and that we can't even imagine without listening to their story.
More than 16 centuries ago, a woman from Galicia in northwest Spain set out on a journey to the Holy Land, hoping to experience for herself the places where important biblical events had occurred. Her name was Egeria (sometimes known as Etheria or Sylvia), and her travels were made all the more memorable because she kept a journal of her three years on the road (381-384). Wishing to share her faith and experiences with her "sisters" back home, Egeria wrote in descriptive detail.
At first glance, our reading from Isaiah seems to come about a month late. Weren't we just singing with Handel about the people in darkness being caught up in light? Hearing that prophecy during today's liturgy reminds us that that the light, as John says, shone in the darkness that vainly tried to overcome it. Today we remember both the light and the cost and joys of sharing it. Isaiah addressed people forced from their homeland, people whose shared suffering created shared hopelessness, who were figuratively or literally blinded to the possibility of a better future.
It's difficult to understand the original meaning of today's Deutero-Isaiah passage unless we restore the first six verses to the Lectionary selection. Isaiah 49:1-6 is generally referred to as the Second Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. The disciples of the anonymous prophet (Deutero-Isaiah) responsible for Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah not only passed on his powerful oracles, they also included four reflections on what it meant for him to be Yahweh's mouthpiece. The first three are autobiographical; the last, biographical -- composed by his followers after his martyrdom.
Most of us celebrate our birthdays. Some among us also celebrate their feast day or patron saint day, but how many of us celebrate the day of our baptism? In his book Christianity: The Making of Christians (Kevin Mayhew Ltd., 1979), Mark Searle reminds readers that for many centuries it was the custom in the church to celebrate the pascha annotinum or the anniversary of baptism. It was a sort of class reunion for the baptized, their sponsors and the bishop, at which they celebrated the Eucharist together.
A well-circulated Hasidic tale tells the story of a rabbi quizzing his students. He asked, "How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?"
One of the students suggested, "Day begins when, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep."
The Lectionary readings chosen for this cycle to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family leave us with difficult questions. By what standards do we evaluate family relationships and why? Who do we include or exclude as family members? And how do we handle family dysfunction, conflict, and abuse?
Christmas: In the bustle of the holiday shopping and commercialism, it's easy to forget that Christmas doesn't end at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 25.
We tend to hear Isaiah's prediction of the birth of "Emmanuel" as a wondrous announcement, the astounding prediction of a birth to take place 700 years after it was spoken. Indeed, it is a marvelous quote, but in its original context, it had nothing at all to do with Jesus. In reality, the birth announcement was made as a serious warning to a wicked king. Facing the danger of an invasion, King Ahaz had chosen to rely on the military might of Assyria to protect him, and in the process, he abandoned his fidelity to the God of his ancestors.