Vigil of Christmas, December 24, annually
When the Jews returned to exile in Babylon, their land and cities seemed desolate. The prophet encourages them with images of light and the promise that God will make their land his bride.
In the synagogue speech in our next reading, the apostle Paul gives his Jewish listeners a rapid summary of their history, showing how it leads through several heroic figures up to Jesus.
Saint Matthew's gospel, written for Jewish converts, begins with the long Jewish ancestry of Jesus. In that history, David was remembered as the greatest hero. The whole gospel highlights how Jesus fulfills, transforms and exceeds traditional Jewish hopes.
The Historical Situation: After their exile in Babylon, the Jews returned to Judah and had a difficult time restoring their old institutions, their economy, their capital Jerusalem, and their temple on Mount Zion in the center of Jerusalem. They were quite discouraged when a prophet, whose words are recorded in the book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, tried to build up their spirits again. We cite this prophet frequently, using his imagery of light piercing darkness in the naturally dark days of Advent, and on feasts like the Epiphany. Today his imagery is of another conversion from gloom to joy and confidence. Isaiah compares the dispirited people to a woman who thought herself unmarriageable (a much more dreadful situation in the ancient Middle East than it is in the modern West). But she suddenly finds a suitor before her, proposing marriage!
To be precise, it's the land of the Jews that the Lord proposes to marry, and, by extension, make fertile. And the prophet's real goal was probably to get the hopeless people to plant crops in the land, despite their "Why bother? What good will it do?" attitude. You can see that in the sentences where the land is described at first as "Desolate," then "Espoused."
Another feature of Judah's reversal of fortune is that she'll be able to hold up her head again among the other nations, which shall see her vindication. All kings shall behold her glory. This is something that Isaiah can't be quiet about (verses 1 & 2).
Proclaiming It: You've surely participated in "the buzz" that attends the announcement of a marriage. In our offices, nothing causes more excitement than the display of a new engagement ring. We proclaim engagements in the newspapers, we shower the couple several times with gifts. We're especially happy for those whom we hadn't expected to find a mate. That's the kind of joy and confidence that Isaiah was trying to convey. Let it inform your proclamation.
The Historical Situation: By the time Saint Paul made this speech, the Jews in his audience had 1800 years of history and they knew it well. (And how many years of history can your country claim today?) Paul takes advantage of that knowledge and tries to show how that history led up to the coming of Jesus, who fulfills that history. The Lectionary passage, for better or worse, skips much of Acts 13, which the lector would do well to read. Especially abrupt is the jump from the Exodus from Egypt to the replacement of King Saul by King David.
Proclaiming It: Be that as it may, the lector should also catch the courtroom atmosphere of the situation described here. Jews unpersuaded about Jesus were already hurling legal challenges at the Christians among them. Saint Paul speaks like a brilliant attorney giving a compelling summation at the end of a contentious trial. The lector who wants to reproduce this should meditate on the course of history and on courtroom histrionics.
Postal services in many countries issue special stamps for the Christmas season. The United States Postal Service issued this stamp in 2013. Their short description of the artwork is "Unusual for its time, Gossaert's depiction of the Virgin Mary shows her supporting her head by leaning on one of her hands, a gesture possibly meant to evoke both sadness and contemplation. A curly-haired infant Jesus sits on her lap holding a bunch of red currants, which scholars have interpreted as foreshadowing Christ's suffering."
To make short a long Wikipedia article about the artist: Jan Gossaert was a Flemish painter also known as Jan Mabuse or Jennyn van Hennegouwe, as he called himself when he matriculated in the guild of St Luke, at Antwerp, in 1503. Born: 1478, Maubeuge, France; Died: October 1, 1532, Antwerp, Belgium.
In U.S. postal usage, the word "FOREVER" means the stamp can be used to mail a letter at any time, even if postal rates have changed since one purchased the stamp. The line striking through the word does not appear on the stamps themselves, but only on their images in media such as this.
This page updated November 4, 2021