September 8

Birth of Mary

The feast of Mary's birth dates back to the spirituality of the second century and its zeal to fill-in narratives where the gospels were silent. Veneration of Mary had its beginnings at this time. The apocryphal writing, Protoevangelium of James, tried to answer the question of Mary's origins. From this 'first gospel,' we received the names of her parents (Anne and Joachim) and the story of her young life. This feast not only celebrates birth of Mary, it also celebrates the spirit of the early Christians in their quest to honor the Mother of Our Lord.

First Reading Option 1: Micah 5:1-4

1 Now you shall gather yourself in troops,
daughter of troops.
He has laid siege against us.
They will strike the judge of Israel with a rod on the cheek.
2 But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
being small among the clans of Judah,
out of you one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel;
whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.
3 Therefore he will abandon them until the time that she who is in labor gives birth.
Then the rest of his brothers will return to the children of Israel.
4 He shall stand, and shall shepherd in the strength of YHWH,
in the majesty of the name of YHWH his God:
and they will live, for then he will be great to the ends of the earth.

World English Bible

Micah wrote the passages about Bethlehem in the midst of foreign invasion. The Assyrians, who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, now threatened Jerusalem itself. As a prophet, Micah condemned the city for its sins, but promised a time of renewed glory. And the restoration would begin in most insignificant of places, just as David, Israel's greatest king, came from the shepherding fields around a small village.

Such would be the case for the coming Messiah, Israel's leader at the end of time. He would seem to come from nowhere, yet, his linage would be from ancient times. He would be something new to get excited about, yet his pedigree would be impeccable. [1]

Until his time, Israel would be scattered among the nations. But his birth would be the sign of Israel's return to its homeland. [2]

Continuing the theme of David, the coming Messiah would rule (like a shepherd) in God's strength and in God's name. So great would his reign be, that it would extend to the ends of the earth. [3] Notice, his rule was peaceful, just like the pastoral image of shepherding depicted. [4]

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First Reading Option 2: Romans 8:28-30

28 We know that, to the (ones) loving God, all (things) work together for the good, to the (ones) being called according to (his) purpose, 29 that whom he foreknew, also preordained, (as) conformed to the image of his SON, for HIM to be the first born of many brothers. 30 These whom he preordained he also called; these whom he called he also made righteous; these whom he made righteous he also glorified.

8:28-29 'We know that...that...' Paul presented two items of insight about Christians. First, everything that happens to Christians ultimately worked for the good. Second, God planned (foreknew) and acted (preordained) to form a community in the image of his Son. Both insights grew directly from that activity of God's will. The end result of God's providence, Paul asserted, would be the final resurrection, just as Christ rose from the dead.

Why did Christ come to earth as a human being? Why did he have to die? These basic questions form the core of faith. The answers, surprisingly, are self-centered. God sent his Son into the world, to die and rise, for us! According to Paul, God foresaw and planned for the moment his Church became a reality. As Church, we are the ones God chose according to his own purposes. We are the ones who would be formed into the image of his Son and would receive glory. We are the ones who will ultimately see the good of God's providence, even though our lives have struggles. Christ came for us! This shows the immense depth and power of God's love.

Although these verses refer to us the saved, we should not presume a hard and fast definition of 'predestination' from Paul's words. God wills all people to follow his Son, but does not force such. God does not pick and choose his people, then condemn the rest; the invitation is universal. But the invitation can be turned down. That is the result of free will. We have the power to tell God 'NO!'

Unlike many Protestant congregations, the Catholic Church has never defined the relationship between free will and grace. Is grace so irresistible it can overpower free will? Common sense says 'no.' Following this insight, many Catholic theologians hold to the dictum: 'Grace builds on nature.' God made us incomplete; his grace completes us. Misuse of free will only denies that fulfillment; it does not warp us to the point we cannot accept grace.

Made whole by grace, we can do God's will and realize his goodness. We can understand the scope of his plans. We know he called us into a people he envisioned from the beginning. And we can see the end game of his providence. We realize all this because of what Christ did for us.

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Gospel: Matthew 1:1-23

Genealogy of Jesus

1 The book of generations of JESUS CHRIST, son of David, son of Abraham.

1:1 'book of generation' can mean have three different meanings. First, the title referred literally to 1:1-17 and named the ancestors of Jesus. Second, the title referred to 1:1-17 and used the names to recall the events of the Hebrew Scriptures. Third, the title was to be taken in the verse as a whole to refer to Matthew's gospel; in this case, the verse should be translated: 'The book of Jesus Christ, (whose) generations (are) son of David, son of Abraham.' This last interpretation while unlikely can easily be teased from the Greek.

'son of David, son of Abraham' In this title, Matthew implied his vision of Jesus, heir to the Davidic covenant and faithful Jew. In other words, Jesus was the King who would sit on the throne of David and would perfectly fulfill the Torah. Matthew saw Jesus as the Messiah in primarily in Jewish terms.

2 Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Zerah fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, 4 Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nashon, Nalshon fathered Salmon, 5 Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab, Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth, Obed fathered Jesse, 6a Jesse fathered David the King.

1:2-17 'fathered' is literally 'generated.' Ancient people believed the male was the active agent in producing offspring; a wife was merely the receptacle for the male's 'seed.' Using this agricultural analogy, the male provided the seed for the plant, while the wive was like the soil in which the seed took root and sprouted.

1:3 Tamar was the mother of twins for Jacob. Originally, Jacob promised Tamar for his sons by a Canaanite woman named Shua. Both sons died without either consummating the marriage; so Tamar was seen as cursed. She dressed as a widow but passed herself as a prostitute in front of Jacob. He had relations with her; she conceived and bore him twins. (See Genesis 38)

1:4-6a See 1 Chronicles 2:9-12 for the names of the descendants.

1:5 The name 'Rahab' was synonymous with an sinful person who showed God's people mercy. In Joshua 2, Rahab was a prostitute who assisted scout for the Hebrews in the city of Jericho. She helped the scouts escape the city despite the kings orders. In return, the scouts gave her a signal to use for the safety of her family when the Hebrews attacked.

1:6 The story of Ruth is well known. However, too many people have overlooked her vice and the instructions of Naomi in Ruth 3. The phrase 'uncover a place at his feet' (Ruth 3:4 NAB) was euphemism for 'uncover his private parts.' Naomi told her daughter-in-law to have relations with Boaz; Ruth followed the advice and Boaz accepted Ruth's advances.

The three women mentioned in these verses were less than moral beings who, nonetheless, took the initiative. In doing so, they became interwoven into the history of Israel. By mentioning Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, Matthew acknowledged the place of women in salvation history, despite the prejudice many Semitic men had against women as 'the weaker sex' both physically and morally. God even used weak sinners to fulfill his plans.

6b David fathered Solomon by the (wife) of Uriah, 7 Solomon fathered Rehoboam, Rehobam fathered Abijah, Abijah fathered Asa, 8 Asa fathered Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat fathered Joram, Joram fathered Uzziah, 9 Uzziah fathered Jotham, Jotham fathered Ahaz, Ahaz fathered Hezekiah, 10 Hezekiah fathered Manasseh, Manasseh fathered Amos, Amos fathered Josiah, 11 Josiah fathered Jechoniah and his brothers at (the time of) the exile to Babylon.

1:6b,8 See 1 Chronicles 3:10.

1:8 Matthew followed the Septuagint (an Old Testament translation in Greek) for the Greek names instead of the Hebrew, but followed the Hebrew order. In the Hebrew original of 1 Chronicles, Uzziah was the father of Jotham, but in the Septuagint, 'Uzziah fathered Joash, Joash fathered Amaziah, Amaziah fathered Azariah, Azariah fathered Jotham.' In other words, Matthew ignored the three generations mentioned in Septuagint. Most likely, Matthew dropped out the names to maintain the fourteen generations between David and the Babylonian exile.

12 After the exile to Babylon, Jechoniah fathered Shealtiel, Shealtiel fathered Zerubbabel, 13 Zerubbabel fathered Abuid, Abuid fathered Elizkim, Eliakin fathered Azor, 14 Azor fathered Zadok, Zadok fathered Achim, Achim fathered Eluid, 15 Eluid fathered Eleazar, Eleazar fathered Matthan, Matthan fathered Jacob, 16 Jacob fathered Joseph, the husband of Mary from whom JESUS, the (ONE) called the CHRIST, was born.

1:16 'Jesus, the one called the Christ' At the time of Jesus, lineage among the Jews did not depend on physical descent, but on legal recognition. When a father named his son at the child's circumcision, then the child was recognized as the father's son and his legal heir. With a grammatical slight of hand, Matthew was able to maintain his theme that Jesus was a son of David and son of Abraham through Joseph, while also maintaining the virgin birth.

17 So, all together (the number of) generations from Abraham to David (was) fourteen generations, and, from David to the exile in Babylon, fourteen generations, and from the exile in Babylon to (the time of) the CHRIST, fourteen generations.

As the note above mentioned, Matthew laid out his genealogy in a deliberate manner to demonstrate his belief about Jesus. He was the Messiah as the 'son of David, son of Abraham.' He was heir to David's eternal throne. He was also THE faithful Jew who brought about the presence of the Kingdom.

Matthew structured his genealogy to emphasize the right moment for the Messiah's appearance and the people he would serve. Matthew listed the genealogy in three groups of fourteen; since Jews considered the number 'seven' as the complete or perfect number, multiples of 'seven' had significance. By using the number in this way, Matthew emphasized the appearance of the Messiah at the right time, the 'fullness of time.' It is interesting to note that Jesus himself marked the fourteenth generation in the list. In other words, the last name to appear, number fourteen on the third list of generations, was the Messiah. In Matthew's eyes, his appearance announced the presence of the end times, the coming of the Kingdom.

The people in the genealogy described not only the character and power of Jesus, they also indicated his mission. He was sent to the poor, the weak, the outcast. The appearance of four women on the list was extraordinary; no ancient man would boast of women in his list of ancestors unless they displayed extraordinary virtue. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (mother of Solomon) may have had outstanding characters, but their stories were flawed, tainted with immorality. Yet, all four had a great impact on their husbands and sons who were key in God's plans. So, too would Mary. The concept of the virgin birth would raise eyebrows among non-believers. For Matthew, the Christ came despite immorality. Indeed, he came to sinner, so they, too, could have a place in God's great plan of salvation.

Birth of Jesus

18 Now, the birth of JESUS (the) CHRIST happened this way. After his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they lived together, she was found, having with child from (the power of) the Holy Spirit. 19 But Joseph, her husband, being righteous and not wishing to shame Mary (in public) planned to divorce her in private. 20 But, as he reflected on these (situations), Look! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David! Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife! For the (BOY) having been conceived in her is by means of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a SON and you will name him 'JESUS,' since HE will save HIS people from their sins.' 22 Now, all this happened so the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 'Look! A virgin will have with child
and will bear a son;
they will call his name 'Emmanuel''
which is translated, 'God is with us.'

24 Having gotten up from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and he took (Mary as) his wife, 25 and he did not know her (in a sexual sense) until (the time) which she bore a SON. He gave HIM the name of 'JESUS.'

1:18 'before they lived together' is literally 'before they came together.' Mary was promised to Joseph in an arranged marriage (i.e., betrothal), but he had not taken her into his home (the actual marriage ritual). Hence, 'came together' meant cohabitation, not sexual intercourse.

'with child' is literally 'in (the) womb.'

1:19 'righteous' can refer to moral character ('righteous man') or religious observance ('righteous Jew'). If Joseph was a 'righteous man,' he had pity on Mary and wished to spare her public humiliation. If he was a 'righteous Jew' and followed the Law, he was bound by religious duty to end the relationship. Either meaning is possible; both meaning infer compassion on Mary.

'divorce her in private' did not mean he ended the betrothal quietly. Keeping Mary's condition secret in a small community dominated by clans would have been impossible. It meant that he would not press charges of adultery against Mary. Thus, he wished to spare her the official title of adulterer and its outcast status.

1:21 This passage combined a Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 ('she will bear a son' from the Septuagint) and Psalm 130:8 ('he will save his people Israel from their sins'). The latter part of the sentence ('he will save...') explained his name. Ancient people believed a name revealed the character and inner power of the person. The angel commanded Joseph to name the boy 'Jesus' because of his function in God's plan.

When Matthew stated Jesus would 'save his people from their sins,' he did not imply Christ would stop people from sinning. Salvation meant the restoration of God's relationship with humanity. With the birth of Jesus, God was with his people.

1:23 This verse has two parts: 1) Matthew's adaptation of Isaiah 7:14 and 2) a clause that explains the name 'Emmanuel.' Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint. But he made one change. 'you will call him...' became 'they will call him...' The change shifted the focus from name ('you' being the father who named the child) to reputation ('they' being the people who would react to Jesus).

The term 'virgin' had a broader meaning in the time of Jesus than a female who had never had intercourse. A virgin was simply a young girl of marrying age.

The passage for the birth of Jesus can be divided into three parts: 1) the dilemma over the pregnancy, 2) the dream and the prophecy, 3) the birth of Jesus. The dilemma was studied in much greater detail at the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Cycle A. To summarize, Mary's pregnancy presented Joseph with few options; as a 'righteous' Jew he wished to follow the Law, save personal face, and still have compassion on his betrothed. But the dream changed his mind. Like his name sake in the Old Testament, Joseph received God's will in his sleep. Many cultures hold dreams as a conduit to the divine will; the key to the dream was proper interpretation, for such would reveal God's intent. Not only did Matthew portray the scene in Old Testament terms, he reinforced the scene with Scripture. How did Joseph really know the message came from God? How could neophytes believe in the virgin birth? The quotation from Isaiah gave the answer. While Isaiah only referred to a teenage girl expecting a birth, Matthew (along with Luke) presented the impossible; a virgin birth was the means for God to live among his people!

Presented together, Matthew saw the genealogy and the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of God's plans. Divine providence began with God's promises to Abraham for a land and a people. They continued through descendants to the covenant with David: an eternal throne for the King of Israel. Even through the loss of the monarchy and the destruction of the nation in the Babylonian exile, God would not abandon his people. From one generation to the next, God's promises remained in effect. In the 'fullness of time,' he kept his promises in the birth of the Messiah, the Jew who would fulfill the Law and bring about the Kingdom, the heir to the eternal throne of David. But, the Messiah would not stand over the people, but be one of the people. For, in the appearance of the Promised One, God spoke of his will clearly. He would gather all his people, regardless of rank, wealth, or moral standing into his Kingdom. The One born among us would be One with us and for us.

The birth of Mary foreshadowed that of her son. She came into the world to bear God's Son into the world. She was chosen to do the work of the Lord, so her Son could save the world.

That is a birth and a life worth celebrating.

What does the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary mean in your life? How do you honor her?