Christmas, Mass During the Day
The city Jerusalem, surrounding mount Zion where the temple stood, had been almost emptied by the exile of many of its citizens. When the exile ended, the prophet describes sentinels in the city seeing the people return.
Jewish converts to Christ missed many of the institutions of Judaism. The letter to the Hebrews shows them they have more now in Christ than ever before. This passage compares God's communication through the prophets versus how God has just communicated in Christ, and how Christ is superior to the angels as mediator.
[The familiar gospel passage needs no introduction (or, no introduction could do it justice).]
The Imagery: Isaiah first imagines that the waiting people can hear, even on a distant hill, the footsteps of their returning kin. The returnees are pictured as singing exultantly, "Your God is King!"
Then the local sentinels raise the cry of recognition, and join in the praise of God. Finally, the joyful people declare that all the earth will recognize the hand of God at work in their restoration.
Proclaiming It: There's no way to proclaim this but joyfully. If it helps you get in the mood, imagine a contemporary town's reception of hometown troops returning from a war. While such an event today may or may not express God's favor, the enthusiasm at such a scene is like what Isaiah described in Jerusalem.
So the letter begins with a comparison of how God formerly spoke to us with how God has now definitively spoken to us through Jesus. You should speak this with strongly contrasting tones of voice, so your listeners get the idea that something has changed here: "In times past, ..." versus "In these last days, ..." You can also begin the reading by announcing "The beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews," rather than "A reading from ..." That might get the attention of a few more members of the assembly. (On this day of the year, that's more of a struggle than usual.)
The Theological Background: The whole reading is about the superiority of Jesus to everything and everyone else. Specifically it states how Jesus is superior to angels. Implied here is that Jesus is superior to the institutions of Judaism, from which the Hebrew Christians were cut off and for which they were feeling nostalgic.
Proclaiming It: So, how are you to proclaim this? In the middle sentences, from "who is the refulgence ..." to "more excellent than theirs ...," try to speak with a sense of wonder in your voice. You're describing the glory of God, and the enthronement of Jesus on high. Then, when comparing God's regard for Jesus to God's estimate of the angels, sound argumentative, like a lawyer making the summation at a trial.
In the gospel, where the evangelist says the Word became flesh "and dwelt among us," the Greek word translated "dwelt" actually means "pitched a tent" among us. What an interesting choice of word. Pitching a tent, with its suggestion of readiness to travel, of unwillingness to settle down, is far from the only way a sovereign might establish his presence among a people. The addressees of the fourth gospel were quite familiar with permanent cities, with imposing fortresses, with grand palaces. Yet when the Word, Who was God, comes to be among this people, the Word dwells in a tent.
But this Word is not just another local god, with which the Middle East was littered in those days. This was the Word Who had been with God since the beginning. The ancestors-in-faith of John's community were a famously local and particular people. They were this Word's own, but when the Word come to them, they "did not receive him." This evangelist, like Saint Paul, interprets the rejection of Jesus by his fellow Jews as an opportunity seized by God to open the reign of grace and mercy to all people, to show the world finally and definitively that there is only one God for all people, and that all people can be united as children of this one God.
Addendum of 2021: What else, in the history of this people, had dwelled in a tent? Yes, the Ark of the Covenant. That was the ornamented, portable chest containing the tablets of the Law which God gave the people while Moses was leading them through the desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. As the nomads traveled, priests carried the Ark; when they camped, the erected a tent for the Ark. When they finally settled, occupying Jerusalem, their King Solomon built a Temple on Mount Zion, where the Ark was permanently enthroned.
To bring back the tent imagery at the beginning of a gospel is to suggest that this is a new beginning of an old enterprise. It will probably have features of the original Covenant, but it may be trying to shake off some stasis, some encrustations that were meant to be temporary but had become, de facto, permanent. [Leave the following bracketed information out of your homily, but know: This interpretation fits modern scholarly understanding of the gospel of John, which is a not-too-well integrated hash of documents from three or more stages of Jewish Christians' self-separation from synagogue Judaism, and, of course, from Temple.] So it remains a challenge for every Christian community. To what, from your glorious past, are you tied, are you too-long loyal, that's timebound and perhaps no longer serving your larger vocation? Is it, in any respect, time to roll up your tent and move on?
Click here for another interpretation of today's gospel, From Commonweal magazine (new, 2015; still online, 2021).
Many national postal services issue Christmas-themed stamps. Click here for the press release from the United States' Postal Service about this one.
This page updated November 6, 2021