INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
JEREMIAH 31:7-14. This remarkably poetic prophecy strikes a chord that rings across the centuries offering hope to exiles and refugees. Addressed to the exiles in Babylon and to oppressing nations, it joyfully declares God’s intention to brings the exiles home and re-establish them in prosperity and peace.
What a marvellous message for the new year from the Lord of History!
PSALM 147:12-20. As an antiphonal response to the previous lesson, this hymn summons praise to God for what God does to restore peace and prosperity to God’s chosen people, Israel.
SIRACH 24:1‑12. (Alternate) The book known as “the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach” (aka Ecclesiasticus from the Latin name given to it by St. Jerome) was not included in the Hebrew Scriptures nor in Protestant Bibles. It was among the several books known as Wisdom literature included in the Scriptures of Roman Catholicism. Dating from the 2nd century BCE, it consists of maxims and aphorism of worldly wisdom and social prudence.
This passage presents Wisdom personified as a woman speaking before the assembly of heaven. She describes herself as participating in creation even though she herself was created by God. She also claims a God-given special role in Israel’s destiny as the chosen people.
WISDOM OF SOLOMON 10:15‑21. (Alternate) Like Sirach, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, was included in the Wisdom literature of Roman Catholicism, but not in the Hebrew Scriptures or Protestant Bibles. Although attributed to King Solomon, it was composed in Greek in the last century BCE by a Greek speaking Jew. This passage describes how Wisdom, again personified as a woman played a role in Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.
EPHESIANS 1:3-14. Those who have been adopted as God’s children through Christ, the opening lines of this letter proclaim, are the people to whom has been revealed the mystery of God’s eternal purpose: to bring together all creation under the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. How do we know this? We have heard the gospel of salvation, and believing, we have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit as the assurance that God will keep this promise.
JOHN 1:10-18. Once again the note of both continuity and discontinuity with the religious tradition of Israel sounds through this passage, as through the whole Gospel of John. Jesus is a man born into the Jewish community of his time, but his own people did not believe in him. To those who did believe – then as now – has been revealed the ultimate truth: Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, is God’s Word made flesh.
The Word (in Greek, Logos) was a term John adopted from contemporary Jewish literature, especially the work of Greek-speaking Jew, Philo of Alexandria. It was also closely related to the Jewish concept of divine Wisdom. To John it meant the gracious, self-revealed presence of God and of God’s purpose uniquely made known in Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
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This remarkably poetic prophecy strikes a chord that rings across the centuries offering hope to exiles and refugees as well as all oppressed and suffering people. Addressed to the exiles in Babylon and to oppressing nations, it joyfully declares God’s intention to brings the exiles home and re-establish them in prosperity and peace.
This passage reminds us more of the poetry of Second Isaiah and his school of disciples (Isa. 40–66) than of Jeremiah. It contains phrases which are foreign to Jeremiah, especially the promise of beneficence to the priests in vs. 14. On the other hand, the idea that Yahweh is father to Israel, and Ephraim “my firstborn son” (vs. 9) has parallels in 3:19 and 31:20. Scholarly consensus holds that it comes from the early post-exilic period or even the years immediately before the return from exile.
The main thrust of the passage, however, presents a view of Yahweh as Lord not only of Israel’s history, but as sovereign over all nations. This is an expression of biblical faith and theological conviction which may be difficult for us to comprehend as we enter this particularly difficult new year. Many will deny that God has taken any initiative in the horrifying events of recent decades or centuries.
A flurry of pessimistic fin de siècle attitudes were widely broadcast less than a decade ago when the 20th century was called the most violent in human history. It is true that many millions of warriors and countless innocent civilians died in incredibly brutal conflicts in the 1900s. This terrifying strife has continued unabated into the new century. On the other hand, do we have access to sufficiently accurate historical records to enable us to describe any period as the most violent ever?
Now we are deeply involved in what could turn out the be a global economic depression as severe as that of the 1930s. Daily the news seems only to heighten our fears as more and more businesses and industries face imminent collapse. Perhaps this is only our way of venting our horror and moral outrage at what we are witnessing in our own time. In the light of such despair as we are seeing, can we really believe that God is in control of these events? Yet around the world many people regard the coming inauguration of a new American administration as offering hope at a time of great need.
The beautiful poetry of this passage may have been composed as a comforting message for a remnant of returning exiles more than 2500 years ago, but it has universal application. Divine love is sovereign. The return of the remnant is being determined by what Yahweh desires. Even the most vulnerable and marginalized will be among them (vs. 8b). As a father leads his children along a straight, smooth path (vs. 9) and as a shepherd gathers his flock scattered across a hillside, so Yahweh will attend to the needs of Israel. These metaphors speak eloquently of the master narrative of the whole of the Jewish and Christian scriptures: the universe is in the hands of a Loving Redeemer.
Early in the 20th century as the maw of fratricidal war consumed the noblest and best of a whole generation, a British preacher declared the biblical faith in these inimitable words: “The loving Creator would not have allowed humanity to get at the matchbox if the foundations of the universe had not been fireproof.”
What a marvellous message for this new year from the Lord of History!
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This liturgical hymn is another of the five hallelujah psalms that close the Psalter. Like all the others, it resounds with praise for Yahweh. While no one knows for sure, all five could have been part of the New Year’s liturgy in the temple. As an antiphonal response to the previous lesson, this segment of the second reading summons praise for what Yahweh has done for the covenanted people, Israel.
Although it now appears as a unit, the psalm probably originally consisted of three separate shorter poems (vss. 1-6; 7-11; 12-20). The special emphasis of this segment is the way Jerusalem in particular receives greater security (vs. 13), peace and prosperity (vs. 14). Even then it was recognized that if the capital city was safe, the whole nation would benefit.
The poem then cites various natural phenomena which bring specific beneficence to Israel. All come as the direct gift of Yahweh. The snow, hoarfrost and ice that melt in warm spring rains (vss. 16-18) may well be a recollection from a particular winter season. These have significance for the psalmist because they provide much needed moisture in the dry climate of Israel where only a few inches of rain falls in a whole year.
No citation of Yahweh’s gifts to Israel would be complete without mention of the law. So in vs. 19, we find “statutes and ordinances,” synonyms for the law reminiscent of the later writings such as the wisdom literature. Vs. 20 cites these as gifts Yahweh has given to no other people. The corollary forms the second part of the poetic parallelism: only Israel knows the law.
This emphasis on Israel’s special privilege became the significant national ideology after the time of Ezra in the 5th century BCE. It has been the central myth of Jewish history ever since. In the past several centuries, France, Britain, the United States, Germany and Russia have all laid claim to similar myths. A hundred years ago, Canada’s prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, made the bold claim that “the 20th century belongs to Canada.” It did not turn out to be particularly true. Perhaps every nation state needs a similar myth of aggrandizement to encourage it in its immaturity. One recognizes the political motivation of such myths. In the darkest period of World War II, King George VI quoted a poet which contained a similar theme which gave voice to a similar message of encouragement:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may go forth into the unknown.”
And he said to me, “Go forth, put your hand into the hand of God.
He shall be to you better than a light, safer than a known way.
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Scholarly debate continues unabated concerning the authorship of the Ephesian letter. Perhaps the most radical hypothesis is that of John C. Kirby, in his Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1968.) He believed that “the letter” began as a baptismal liturgy and sermon for Pentecost, probably at Ephesus, and was later transformed into a general epistle from that community. Others view it as a pseudonymous letter by someone who was steeped in Pauline theology, but represented the ecclesiology and doctrine of the late lst or early 2nd century. In The Oxford Companion to the Bible Markus K. Barth wrote of it: “In short, Ephesians is considered, together with the Pastoral Epistles and Acts, to expound what is called ‘early Catholicism.’” Barth also notes that detractors of the letter “have dubbed it “a Marseillaise of church triumphalism.” (Oxford University Press, 1993).
This passage is perhaps the key to the whole letter. To quote Markus Barth again: “God’s love has been poured out as an abundant blessing; through grace and forgiveness Jews and gentiles now praise God’s glory.” Kirby saw this hymn of praise as a Christian rendition of the Jewish berakah, a prayer of blessing common in many of the Psalms. He cites Psalm 105 as a good example. In the Ephesian version of this type of prayer almost every phrase celebrates what God has done through Christ. “Every spiritual blessing” (vs. 3) is identified in a crescendo of enthusiasm as the prayer proceeds.
Pauline theological concepts such as election, adoption, redemption and forgiveness all figure largely in this passage. Election occurred before creation (vs. 4). Adoption came about through Jesus Christ (vs. 5). Redemption and forgiveness resulted from the death of Christ (vs. 7). All of this is the work of grace, “freely bestowed … lavished upon us” (vss. 6, 8). To those so blessed has been revealed the mystery of God’s eternal plan and purpose: to bring together all creation under the sovereignty of Christ and so live to praise God’s glory (vss. 8b-12). How do we know this? We have heard the gospel, and believing, we have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit as the assurance that God will keep this promise.
Along with the gospel lesson from John 1 below, this reading presents a fully rounded doctrine of the Incarnation, “Why God became human?” in the words of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Indeed, this may well be the link between Pauline and Johannine theology, if it is as many scholars believe, the product of a late lst century author. The whole letter emphasizes the life in risen Christ in the Christian community much more than his death and resurrection. The latter is by no means neglected as the means by which we have been given the spiritual gifts of the Christian life. Nonetheless, the redeemed life now and forever in ordinary people is the central theme of the author’s praise and admonitions.
This emphasis lends credibility to Kirby’s thesis that the baptism of new converts at Pentecost was the occasion for the original liturgy and sermon which subsequently became a letter. Vss. 13-14 provide one key reference to this occasion. Being “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” as a “pledge of our inheritance” can have only one meaning: it is a metaphor for baptism. Very early in the history of the church, the practice of “sealing” baptismal candidates by marking a cross with oil on their foreheads became a normal part of the baptismal liturgy. This charism symbolized the gift of the Spirit to the baptized for the new life in Christ now beginning. The writer is holding up for all others who read this letter the example of the Ephesian community and the intensely spiritual meaning of this ritual.
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Once again the note of both continuity and discontinuity with the religious tradition of Israel sounds through this passage, as through the whole Gospel of John. Jesus is a man born into the Jewish community of his time. John does not tell us, either by proclamation or story, how this occurred. Instead, John tells us that he is the transcendent and pre-existent One through whom both creation and re-creation come into being (vs. 10-13).
His own people to whom he came as one of them did not believe in him. To those who did believe – then as now – has been revealed the ultimate truth: Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, is God’s Word made flesh, the source of life, the full revelation of divine glory, the one who offers the gift of a new life to all who will accept it.
The Word (in Greek, Logos) was a term John adopted from contemporary Jewish literature, especially the work of Greek-speaking Jew, Philo of Alexandria. The Word also closely paralleled the Jewish concept of divine Wisdom. Throughout pre-exilic times, “the word of the Lord” had been associated with prophetic inspiration. In later Jewish literature divine Wisdom had appeared as personified, and moreover, as a woman (cf. Proverbs 1-9). This personified Wisdom of God also had a role in creation (Prov. 3:19; 8:22-31). The author of the apocryphal book, Sirach (also known by its Latin name, Ecclesiasticus) equated Wisdom with the creative word of God and with Torah. To John The Word meant the gracious, creative, self-revealed presence of God and of God’s redemptive purpose for all creation uniquely made known in Jesus, the man of Nazareth.
John went further than regarding Jesus as a mere human endowed with special gifts of wisdom. Nor was he a prophet, like Moses (vs. 17). All the OT images of God have disappeared. No longer is Yahweh depicted as almost human walking in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3) or speaking to and through human prophets in authoritative ways. No longer are aspects of divine character personified. The passage reads as if John felt awed by the audacity of his own imagination. Here was an entirely new revelation of truth and grace (vs. 16). More than that, here is the God whom no one has ever seen. This Jesus, the Christ, is God’s only Son.
In the hushed silence of a gathered congregation attentive to every word uttered by the reader, the words of this passage come as just that – an entirely new revelation. “The Word became flesh and lived among us….From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” He gives life – spiritual life lived in and through our fleshly life – to all who will accept it. This faith statement has become the heart of every creed since John penned it in the last decade of the 1st century. Whether or not we believe it is the crucial issue which each person must decide.