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Transforming the World  
Charles A. Bobertz  
   

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.

A Call to Become What We Hear
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.

Advent in Matthew
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 in creation.

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).

Christmas
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 Days of Christmas
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.

Charles A. Bobertz, PhD,
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.
 
         
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