The readings for the new liturgical year (Year A) follow the Gospel
according to Matthew. Many Catholics hold a certain regard for
this account of the Gospel, primarily because it gives us the words
of Jesus: "you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it"
(Matthew 16:18). The Church's foundation in the apostle Peter is
carried forward in the leadership and ministry of the Chair of Peter,
the Pope. In the account in Matthew, the context in which Jesus
speaks to Peter is encouraging. Matthew is the most Jewish of our
Gospel accounts, quite likely written for those Jews who had come
to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and Savior. Of all the
Gospel accounts, Matthew provides the Church with its most
direct link to its foundation in the practice and faith of Judaism.
This foundation, or "rock," deserves more of our attention.
At the time of Jesus, Judaism was a religion of deed more
than creed, of practice more than doctrine. This is not to say that
specific beliefs did not matter. For example, it is quite possible
that during Jesus' time, many Jews daily recited (as they do today),
the prayer-creed Sh'ma Yisra'el, "Hear O Israel the Lord is our
God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4), expressing belief in
monotheism and the rejection of idols. Ancient Judaism considered
belief as necessarily concretely expressed in action. This
understanding is shown in another ancient Jewish Christian text,
the letter of James. The letter's recipients are told to "be doers of
the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone
is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks
at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and
promptly forgets what he looked like" (James 1:22-24). Ancient
Judaism taught that our actions form us. We can look in a mirror
and recognize ourselves. Literally, we become the words of faith
that we recite.
As I said, Matthew is a Jewish-Christian account of the
Gospel. It was most likely written for a community that still practiced
the laws of Judaism, such as keeping kosher food laws,
Sabbath observance, and circumcision. It was a type of Christianity
that eventually died out (though there are references to these
communities even around the year 400 AD), but gave us, in the
form of this account, one of the great foundations of Catholic
Christianity. That foundation is that belief without practice, and
participation in the sacraments without performing charitable
works, do not make sense. Indeed, our practices make us who we
are. It is often said of the Eucharist: we must become what we eat.
Throughout Year A, Matthew's account calls us to become what
we hear. The reading this year will feature the Sermon on the
Mount, a teaching based upon almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.
These were the three pillars of ancient Jewish practice: selfless
giving, that is, giving without the expectation of return; fasting,
which calls to mind both the need of repentance and discipline in
the faithful life; and prayer that centers our relationship with God
and provides the strength for good practices.
More than a few times, the account in Matthew sounds
harsh. It is in this account that Jesus tells of the grave consequences
of not practicing our faith, of not becoming who we are
as Christians. It is in Matthew that we hear Jesus' parable of the
goats and the sheep on the left hand and right hand of God at the
final judgment (Matthew 25: 31-46; week 34 of Ordinary Time).
Those who do not practice the works of charity (feeding the hungry,
welcoming the outcast, clothing the naked, and visiting the
sick and the imprisoned) are to be cast away from the presence of
God. Such is the portrayal in Matthew 25:46: "And these will go
off to eternal punishment . . . ." Matthew speaks easily of hell,
the unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12, Second Sunday of Advent).
We are likely to want to skip such sentiments, but we dare not.
Rather than a threat, such words are a challenge to us to practice
what we preach, actually to become what we say we are. As we
become Christians, the world is transformed and we begin to
extinguish the torments of hunger, loneliness, and neglect.
Our readings this year of Matthew's account of the Gospel
will lay a foundation upon the "rock" of Peter. It is good to celebrate
our unity with the Chair of Peter in Rome. It is also good to
note that the Catholic tradition has inherited and made its own
the Jewish sense of religious life as a seamless garment of belief
and practice. Within that sense is the understanding that to tear a
part is to tear the whole cloth, but even better, to repair a part is
to repair the whole. As my Jewish friends here in Minnesota often
tell me, we are about tikkun olam, perfecting the world.
The Gospel according to Matthew, written perhaps around 80 AD,
used Mark as a source. In studying the message of Matthew, modern
scholars examine how the evangelist changes Mark's account
to fit the situation in Matthew's time, place, and community. It is
worth remembering that for the earliest Christians, Jesus was the
living Lord of the present. Reflecting this certainty, all of the
Gospel accounts present the teaching of Jesus applicable to the
time and situation surrounding the work. As we see how Mark's
message was adapted for the Matthean community, we will find
an Advent message for our time.
The first week in Advent places us in Matthew chapter 24,
the so-called apocalyptic chapter of the account. At the heart of
ancient apocalyptic writing is what we recognize most easily
about this strange form of thought, namely, a graphic description
of the destruction of the world. Such descriptions carry forward
from ancient times even to today. Scenes of the angels of wrath
destroying the earth in the Book of Revelation (7:2) can be compared
to the helicopter attack that opens Francis Ford Coppola's
film Apocalypse Now. Yet the point of ancient Jewish and Christian
apocalyptic writing is to express God's desire and capacity to create
out of destruction and chaos. Just as the world began with
God's creation from chaos (Genesis 1:1), so the new creation,
happening now, begins from the chaos we experience around us.
Apocalyptic writing shows that chaos, such as the persecution of
the Lord's people, however powerful and destructive, does not
have the last word in the face of the creative power of God. For
when chaos seems most powerful and triumphant, God will be
present, ready to create from that very chaos. Apocalyptic writing,
therefore, holds together a realistic picture of the sadness, misery,
and evil in the world with the fervent belief that God will triumph
This is why, in the reading from Matthew 24:37-44, on the
First Sunday of Advent, Jesus teaches his disciples to be watchful
for the chaos preceding Jesus' return. In Mark's earlier version of
the apocalyptic chapter (Mark 13), this chaos is present in the
suffering and death of Jesus about to unfold in the Passion narrative.
Mark's Jesus tells his three intimate disciples (Peter, James,
and John) three times to "watch" for the return of the master of
the house (Mark 13:33-37) immediately before the scene in the
Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus prays in the garden, he awakens
the disciples three times, commanding them to "watch" (Mark 14:33-42). Jesus' arrest, at the start of the Passion in Mark, signals
the creative power of God that triumphs over chaos at Jesus'
Resurrection. At the end of the Passion in Mark, the tomb is
empty: the creative power of God to be shown in the return of
the resurrected Jesus is imminent.
In our first Advent reading from Matthew, this imminent
expectation of the return of Christ is considerably toned down.
We are to be alert because the return of the Lord will happen at
an unexpected time, and clearly work is to be done here in the
meantime (Matthew 24:44). For Matthew, the mission of the
Church to engage and transform the world must take place first
(Matthew 28:19-20). In that mission, Jesus will be with the Church.
The advent of chaos signaling the impending new creation amid
the return of the Lord will occur only after this mission.
This is why the remainder of the Advent Gospel readings
send us into the heart of Matthew to hear what is required prior
to the Lord's final return. During the Second Sunday of Advent,
we hear the story of John the Baptist. While Mark's description of
John as Elijah (in first-century Judaism the return of Elijah signaled
the imminent end of the age) is straightforward, Matthew
adds John's conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Good
fruit is to be produced, for "every tree that does not bear good
fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:10).
Matthew envisions the time awaiting the Lord's return as that of
producing good fruit, with Christian practice transforming the
world well before the final outbreak of fiery chaos that destroys
the world (Matthew 3:12).
We could easily miss the importance of placing the story of
John the Baptist's query-"Are you the one to come or shall we wait
for another?"-in the third week of Advent (Matthew 11:2-11).
Jesus' response, "Go and tell John what you hear and see" forms
the basis of Matthew's arrangement of his account up to this
point. Matthew placed the stories of miraculous cures from his
written sources (mostly Mark) in chapters eight and nine, forming
the basis for the response to John. Jesus has cured blindness
(9:27-31), paralysis (9:1-8), leprosy (8:1-4), deafness (9:32-34),
and death itself (9:18-26). Matthew's audience comes to realize,
along with John and John's disciples, that Jesus' claims to be the
fulfillment of prophecy (for example, Isaiah 35:5-6) and to be
Messiah are true. More significant, however, is the fact that all of
these miracles come immediately after the Sermon on the Mount
(Matthew 5-7). These are not miracles for the sake of the miraculous,
that is, awesome displays of divine power. The miracles in
Matthew are the confirmation that what Jesus teaches in the
Sermon on the Mount, the sort of loving community described
there, is what God desires the human community to be. Matthew
reflects the ancient Jewish belief that getting community right-the true love of God and each other expressed in the Sermon on
the Mount-leads to the healing of creation. The flawed creation,
blindness, deafness, leprosy, even death itself, would be healed as
a community followed the Messiah's teachings. Jesus' response to
John on this Third Sunday in Advent is more than a claim that
John and his disciples ought to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. It
is an invitation to them (and us) to join a certain sort of community
engaged in restoring both community and creation.
The last week of Advent brings the first part of the familiar
birth story many of us know by heart. Matthew has none of
the divine drama of Luke's annunciation of the angel to Mary.
He simply writes that "she (Mary) was found with child through
the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18). For Matthew, the drama is in the
social situation. A pregnancy prior to a girl's going to her husband's
home brought scandal to two families. Joseph could have
accused Mary publicly of a betrayal of honor in order to restore his
own. In a society with such regard for social honor, Joseph's decision
not to expose Mary was truly a selfless act. It was not unlike
what Jesus teaches later in the Sermon on the Mount, that one is
to suffer a blow rather than to strike another (Matthew 5:39).
We may consider the Gospel readings from the first three Nativity
Masses (Vigil, Midnight, and Dawn) as a group. The readings
from Matthew and Luke together form much of the Christmas
story with which we are most familiar: the angel appears to Joseph
with the command to name the child Jesus (Matthew 1:21); the
tax decree of Caesar Augustus compels the Holy Family to travel
from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1); the story of the angel's
visitation of the shepherds "keeping night watch over their flock"
and the subsequent pilgrimage the shepherds make to the manger
of Jesus (Luke 2:8-14). While it is hard to hear these Gospels
apart from the veil of childhood romance, the infancy narrative
holds a surprising degree of candor. Matthew tells us that the
birth of Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, "behold the virgin
shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him
Emmanuel." Isaiah originally related that prophecy to the king of
Judah, Ahaz, when he and the southern kingdom of Judah were
utterly fearful of annihilation by their enemies. Matthew uses this
prophecy to indicate that, in the birth of Christ, God once again
is responding to those, then and now, trapped in hopelessness
and despair. "God with us," Emmanuel, means there is hope, especially
in the community called by Christ to embody that hope.
While we think of shepherds as "the salt of the earth,"
ancient people thought of shepherds as among the lowest ranks
on the social ladder (they describe them as smelling bad). That
Luke has "the angel" and then "a multitude of the heavenly host"
appear to the shepherds would have been seen as the highest
social rank appearing with the lowest. The lowly shepherds are
the first to come to see Jesus, wrapped in ordinary cloth and lying
in a feeding trough. No doubt Luke begins his story of Jesus with
the irony pervasive in his Gospel account, namely, that in the mission
of Jesus, the lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be laid
low (Luke 16:25).
The fourth Nativity Mass (Day) features John's magnificent
Prologue. The hymn reminds us that what we are contemplating
at Christmas is inexpressible and incomprehensible: "And the
Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).
The words "made his dwelling" translate more literally as "tabernacled
among us," that is, God comes to dwell in the Christian
community as in the Jerusalem Temple. By extension then, the
sacraments of the Christian community, especially the Eucharist,
manifest God's presence to the world. John builds his narrative
about Jesus (John's story of Jesus is markedly different than the
story of Jesus in the synoptic accounts) in our world around
the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. In John's account of the
Gospel, one must be born of "water and the spirit" (John 3:5) and
eat the Eucharist: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him" (John 6:56).
The Church extends the celebration of Christmas until the feast
of the Baptism of the Lord. Prior to that Sunday are the feast of
the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and two solemnities,
Mary, Mother of God and the Epiphany of the Lord. As we might
expect, our readings focus on the few stories we have from Jesus'
early years with Mary and Joseph-the shepherds at the manger
of Jesus and the visit of the Magi to the home of Jesus in
Bethlehem. Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus, the Gospel
that concludes the season, is both the end and the beginning of
the story. It is the culmination of the hidden years of Jesus' life,
his time of preparation, and the beginning of Jesus' active ministry.
Appropriate, too, is the symbol of Baptism marking the passage
from one stage of the Church's year to another, from the
celebration of Incarnation to the manifestation of God among us,
in our lives and in our world.
What stands out about the Gospel readings from these
weeks is what we don't have-lively stories about the 30 years
between Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and baptism in the Jordan.
This absence reminds us that the central concern of the earliest
Christians was not historical detail but theological truth: in
Christ, God had come into our world, and in the sacraments of
the Church, Christ continues to be present among us. At the visit
of the shepherds at the manger, "Mary kept all these things
reflecting on them in her heart." Undoubtedly, she did so because
it was so unexpected that God would enter into our world in such
impoverished circumstances, with such ordinary people. On the
solemnity of the Epiphany, the Magi visit Jesus, bringing a gift
that was not part of the prophecy of Isaiah 60:1-6. Isaiah speaks
of gold and frankincense but not myrrh. The Magi in Matthew's
account present the gift of myrrh, the oil ancients used to anoint
kings and to anoint bodies for burial. Jesus will be king, but only
as a consequence of his willingness to give his body and life on
behalf of others.
Ending our season we hear Matthew's version of Jesus' baptism.
The key word in this reading is righteousness, a favorite
Matthean word. In Matthew, righteousness is the result of action
in accord with the will of God that is best illustrated in the
Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In our reading this week,
Jesus declares that his baptism by John is "to fulfill all righteousness."
Matthew's understanding is that Jesus' ministry is in accord
with the ancient Jewish understanding of righteousness. The
Gospel according to Matthew focuses on the actions required to
form communities that transform the world: practices that are
the foundational rock of Catholic faith.
is professor of New Testament and Patristics at St. John's School of Theology•Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota. He is also a permanent deacon in the diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.