Daily Reflection
December 24th, 2005

Robert P. Heaney

The John A. Creighton University Chair
Click here for a photo of and information on this writer.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Advent
Liturgy in the Morning

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27 and 29
Luke 1:67-79

Liturgically speaking, Christmas Eve is probably the most neglected day of the church year, and particularly so when it falls on a Saturday. Few participate in the morning mass, and rarely does the proper vigil liturgy itself get celebrated. That is a pity. The Gospels for the two masses share a unique feature, from which we could learn much.

Suppose we had a cultural exchange visitor this Christmas from outer Mongolia, and she asked us what this celebration was all about. “Who was this Jesus?” How many of us would answer by starting, as St. Matthew does: He was “. . . son of David, son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac; Isaac fathered Jacob; Jacob fathered . . .” This seemingly endless list of “begettings” does not serve some obscure purpose, no longer relevant to us 2000 years later. It actually is central to our story. Matthew tells us that we cannot understand Jesus if we are unfamiliar with the totality of God’s relationship to Israel, extending back all the way to Abraham. The person we know as Jesus is the fulfillment of that long story – not in a mechanical sense of acting out old predictions, but in the fullest expression of who God Himself is, a more complete demonstration of God’s love than could have been possible in the story of His relationship with Israel. So the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament – is not something of merely historical interest, now obsolete or superseded. Rather it is the bedrock foundation of our bond with Jesus.

The Gospel for the morning mass is Zachary’s song of praise after recovering the gift of speech on the birth and naming of John the Baptist. Religious are familiar with this song, the Benedictus, because it is the Canticle for morning prayer in the Divine Office; but many of the rest of us may be less aware of this treasure. The best evidence indicates that it was one of the hymns of the very earliest Jewish Christian communities who, when gathered to celebrate God’s victory in Jesus, sang “. . . He has visited His people, He has set them free!” St. Luke inserted it into his narrative of the Baptist’s birth because it fit so perfectly.

Like St. Matthew in his detailing of the origins of Jesus, these earliest Christians expressed their praise and gratitude in the language of their scriptural tradition. Virtually every line and phrase in the Benedictus is a quote from, or has a parallel in, the Psalms and the songs of praise recorded in the Prophets and the historical books. It is a beautiful mosaic built exclusively of Old Testament tiles. Like St. Matthew, these first Christians understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of the long tradition of God’s relationship with Israel. When we recite (or better: sing) the Benedictus, we hold hands across the centuries with those very first Christians.

There has been a lot of interest in recent years among adopted children to learn who their birth parents were and, perhaps, to learn something about them. We Christians are the adopted children of Israel, and it makes even more sense for us to become familiar with the root stock onto which we have been grafted. When the Christmas clutter has been put away and we ponder New Year’s resolutions (most of which we won’t keep), it might be a good idea to resolve to become more familiar with our roots – God’s relationship with Israel.

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