Jan 3, 2021: Second Sunday After Christmas (ABC)

Introduction

The Feast of the Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas, January 6th. However, in the dioceses of the United States, this feast is moved to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, and is therefore celebrated today. (For those readings, please see the separate entry for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.)

In dioceses that do not commute the celebration of Epiphany to a Sunday, this week is celebrated as the Second Sunday After Christmas. However, this Sunday might be called Wisdom Sunday. It celebrates several themes:

  • Wisdom was present from the beginning of time as a cosmic force,
  • Wisdom lives in the midst of the people,
  • Christ is the fulfillment of Wisdom and the agent of our salvation.

1st Reading – Sirach 24:1-2, 8-12

Wisdom sings her own praises and is honored in God,
before her own people she boasts;
in the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
in the presence of his power she declares her worth,
in the midst of her people she is exalted,
in holy fullness she is admired;
in the multitude of the chosen she finds praise,
and among the blessed she is blessed.

“The Creator of all commanded and said to me,
and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,
saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,
in Israel your inheritance,
and among my chosen put down your roots.’

“Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and through all ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and in Zion I fixed my abode.
Thus in the chosen city I have rested,
in Jerusalem is my domain.
I have struck root among a glorious people,
in the portion of the LORD, his heritage;
and in the company of the holy ones do I linger.”

The Book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) is one of the books included in the canon of Roman Catholic Bibles but not in the canon of Protestant Bibles. Catholics call these books deuterocanonical while Protestants call them apocryphal.

The foreword of Sirach explains that the book was originally written in Hebrew but was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in the second century BC.

Sirach was written to extol the wisdom of Judaism in a world that had become Hellenized — that is, in a world that was increasingly influenced by Greek culture. In fact, the book contains two poems that praise wisdom, one in its opening chapter and one in chapter 24, parts of which we read today.

Wisdom sings her own praises and is honored in God, before her own people she boasts; 

Wisdom is personified as a woman; this is remarkable given the patriarchal nature of Jewish society.

in the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, in the presence of his power she declares her worth, in the midst of her people she is exalted, in holy fullness she is admired; in the multitude of the chosen she finds praise, and among the blessed she is blessed.

In addition to being personified, Wisdom is also idealized: she is a model unattainable by man. Wisdom is revered both on earth and in the heavens, but she is not dependent on anyone else to pay her homage. She sings her own praises, publicly, both before her own people and in the midst of the very court of God.

It is highly unusual that a woman, even Woman Wisdom, would be granted admission to the court of God and be allowed to speak about anything, much less herself, before God.

The origin and identity of this mysterious woman have challenged commentators from the beginning. Some believe she was originally an ancient Israelite goddess who lost her divine prerogatives as Israel developed a monotheistic faith. Other commentators consider Woman Wisdom a personification of a divine attribute. In this view, she is not an independent deity but a characteristic of God.

“The Creator of all commanded and said to me, and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent, saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance, and among my chosen put down your roots.’

As the poem continues, the author specifically asserts that God’s wisdom resides with Israel rather than in Greek culture.

Just as in John’s gospel the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so in Sirach Wisdom is told by God to pitch her tent (i.e., dwell) in Israel.

“Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me, and through all ages I shall not cease to be.

Wisdom existed before the rest of creation. This is echoed in our gospel reading today, where John emphasizes the preexistence of Christ before all creation. Eventually, the Word, the Wisdom of God, became flesh in Jesus Christ.

In the holy tent I ministered before him, and in Zion I fixed my abode. Thus in the chosen city I have rested, in Jerusalem is my domain. I have struck root among a glorious people, in the portion of the LORD, his heritage; and in the company of the holy ones do I linger.”

Although Woman Wisdom was free to roam throughout the universe, she was in search of a dwelling place for herself (Sirach 24:7), a place where she would be able to rest. Her role in creation seems to have provided her some measure of universal influence, and so she could have decided on almost any place. However, God determined where she would abide, and he chose Israel for her dwelling place.

Deciding the proper place for Woman Wisdom to settle was not a divine afterthought. It seems to have been part of primordial creation itself. One can conclude from this that the establishment of cosmic Wisdom in the midst of Israel, decreed as it was at the primordial event, is here seen as part of the very structure of the created cosmos. Wisdom was there from the beginning, ministering to God but waiting to be revealed in a special way to the children of Israel.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.

Therefore, I, too, hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus
and of your love for all the holy ones,
do not cease giving thanks for you,
remembering you in my prayers,
that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
may give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones.

Ephesians is the great Pauline letter about the worldwide church. In it, Paul praises God for the great gifts he has given his people.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 

The reading opens with a benediction, a common way to open letters as well as prayers. This blessing is akin to a Jewish barekah, rich in images almost certainly drawn from hymns and liturgy.

who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,

As is always the case in Christian theology, the blessings of God come to us through the agency of Christ.

as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,

By the time of Paul, Christians had realized that God’s love extends not only to Israel, but to every nation. It was God’s loving plan from the very beginning, “before the foundation of the world” to include Gentiles like the Ephesians in God’s redemptive plan.

to be holy and without blemish before him.

The concepts of being chosen and “without blemish” clearly reflect Old Testament theology. In the Old Testament, sacrificial victims offered to God had to be unblemished, blameless (Genesis 17:1).

Notice how Paul frames this message: The believers were not chosen because they were holy and blameless but that they might be holy and blameless. In other words, salvation is the cause, not the consequence, of righteousness.

Christians are called to live sacrificial, holy lives. Holiness is, therefore, a gift from God that comes with an obligation to further its development.

“It is asked how anyone can be saintly and unblemished in God’s sight. … We must reply (that) Paul does not say He chose us before the foundation of the world on account of our being saintly and unblemished. He chose us that we might become saintly and unblemished, that is, that we who were not formerly saintly and unblemished should subsequently be so.” [Saint Jerome (386 AD), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 1,1,4]

In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will,

Predestination refers to that act whereby God’s love, from all eternity, determines salvation in Christ.

Although Paul is writing to specific individuals, there is no sense here that some are predestined for salvation and others are not. The point is that salvation in Christ is not an afterthought; it was God’s plan from the beginning.

for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.

This introduces a recurrent theme in Ephesians: mankind, understanding God’s plan, should praise him and give thanks.

“So that our love for Him may become more fervent, He desires nothing from us except our salvation. He does not need our service or anything else but does everything for this end. One who openly expresses praise and wonder at God’s grace will be more eager and zealous.” [Saint John Chrysostom (392-397 AD), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 1,1,6].

Therefore, I, too, hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and of your love for all the holy ones, do not cease giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,

The benediction has concluded; Paul now addresses the Ephesians directly. They have responded in love to God’s saving plan; an event for which Paul expresses deep gratitude.

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, 

Paul begins a series of intercessions for his readers. The title “Father of Glory” occurs only here in the New Testament, but Acts 7:2 calls him “God of Glory” and 1 Corinthians 2:8 says “Lord of Glory.”

may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.

Wisdom is one of the primary baptismal gifts. It enables us to know God, to understand the profound hope of Christianity, and to appreciate the excellence of the inheritance that comes with adoption as children of God.

Like Sirach in our first reading, Paul wants the Ephesians to let God’s wisdom find a home in them.

Like John in our gospel reading, Paul wants the Ephesians to see the light of Christ so that they can continue to experience Christ’s redemptive presence in their midst.

Gospel – John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.

But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’”
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

Of the four gospels, John’s was written last, probably toward the end of the first century AD. John’s audience had lived well beyond the expected Second Coming. By this time, people were asking, “Where is Jesus Christ? We expected his return long before now.”

In order to respond to this question, John writes a gospel that differs in many ways from the other three gospels (called the Synoptic Gospels because of their similarity to each other). John’s theme, which he introduces in the opening poem we read today, is that the Word has become flesh and dwells among us. Instead of looking back to the time when the historical Jesus lived on earth, or to a future time when the Son of Man would return, John wanted to help his audience see that the risen Christ is alive and in their midst.

If this reading seems familiar, it was just proclaimed at Christmas Mass During the Day.

In the beginning was the Word,

The Gospel of John begins with one of the most profound christological statements in the entire New Testament. It is reminiscent of Genesis 1:1, which may be John’s way of implying that the coming of the Word into the world was as momentous as the first creation.

Some commentators believe John is demonstrating that Jesus is the creative Word of God who spoke things into existence. God made the world “by a word” (Psalm 33:6); here, John is telling us that Christ is the Word.

and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John goes on to describe the Word in language that recalls the figure of Wisdom personified (Proverbs 8:30; Wisdom 7:25). Like Wisdom, the Word was actively involved in creation. Unlike Wisdom, the Word is explicitly identified as divine.

He was in the beginning with God.

For the fourth time, John insists that the Word was with God at the beginning. There never was a time when Christ, the second person of the Trinity, did not exist.

This is a very high Christology, a Christology that claims Jesus’ divinity not by describing him as being conceived in Mary through the Holy Spirit, but as a preexistent Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.

All things came to be through him,

In a free-flowing manner, the author ascribes life-giving power to the Word.

and without him nothing came to be.

John emphasizes his point by reiterating it in the negative.

What came to be through him was life,

Life is not mere existence; even inanimate things exist. Life is some kind of sharing in the being of God.

and this life was the light of the human race;

Life in man is something greater and nobler than it is in other creatures; it is rational, and not merely animal. When man became a living soul, created in the image and likeness of God, his life was light.

the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This comparison between light and darkness is the first of many contrasts in John’s writings. Man, in his fallen state, lies under the power of death and darkness. By contrast, the Word is life and light, overcoming death and penetrating the darkness.

A man named John was sent from God.

The witness referenced here only as “a man named John” is not further identified; however, it is presumed that this is John the Baptist, because the words that appear in this passage are later ascribed to him (John 1:15; 1:30).

He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

The concept of witnessing is one of the fundamental ideas in John’s writings.

Light provides its own testimony; it is, in itself, evidence. However, to those who shut their eyes against the light, it is necessary for someone to bear witness to it. In other words, the light of Christ doesn’t need testimony, but the world’s darkness does.

He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. 

There seems to be a definite need to contrast the Word with John. The Word is the true light that comes into the world; John is merely the witness who testifies to the authenticity and superiority of this light.

The need for this distinction may have been motivated by the fact that the Baptist’s position had been misinterpreted by some (see Acts 19:1-7). John is neither a peer nor a rival of the Word.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Up until this point, only John is clearly a historical person; the Word resided in some primordial place. Now, the Word enters into human history.

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.

The great Maker, Ruler, and Redeemer of the world was now in it, and few or none of the inhabitants of the world were aware of it. They didn’t recognize him because he did not make himself known in the way that they expected, that is, in external glory and majesty.

He came to what was his own, 

“His own” is literally “his own property/possession,” which probably refers to Israel, who was God’s own above all other people.

but his own people did not accept him.

As we know, the Israelites violently rejected Christ.

But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name,

In Semitic usage, one’s name is equivalent to the entirety of a person.

who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

The author distinguishes between those who were intimately associated with the Word (“his own people”) but rejected him, and those who did accept him and thereby became children of God.

John goes into further detail about how these children of God came into such a privileged position. It was not through blood relation or the will of man; it is the grace of God that makes us willing to be his. God is the immediate cause of new spiritual life.

And the Word became flesh

John intends the word flesh to be shocking. Flesh is not evil, but it is transitory, mortal, imperfect. At first glance, this is incompatible with the transcendent God, the source of all life. This is the mystery of the incarnation, by which the Eternal Word took on our exact human nature, becoming one with us in everything but sin (Hebrews 4:15).

and made his dwelling among us,

Literally, “pitched his tent among us.” This echoes our first reading, which describes Wisdom establishing her tent in the midst of the people (Sirach 24:8). It also calls to mind the tabernacle in the wilderness where God dwelt among the Israelites in the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34).

The Word of God, who is also the holiness of God and the wisdom of God, now dwells in the midst of humankind. The Incarnate Word is the new mode of God’s presence among his people.

and we saw his glory, 

The gospel writer is giving his own eyewitness testimony. He and the other apostles witnessed Christ’s glory — that is, his divinity — firsthand.

Just as the sun still emanates light behind a thick cloud cover, or behind an eclipse, so Christ was still gloriously divine after he took on human flesh.

the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

“Grace and truth” may represent the two Old Testament terms describing Yahweh in covenant relationship with Israel (Exodus 34:6); thus the Word shares Yahweh’s covenant qualities.

John has reached the climax of his introduction; he never again refers to Jesus as the Word.

John testified to him and cried out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”

Now that John has spoken explicitly of the incarnation of the Word, he now presents the testimony of John the Baptist. He is the first in a series of witnesses who testify on behalf of the Christ-event.

In all four gospels, John the Baptist gives testimony to Jesus Christ by making it clear that one greater than he is coming. However, in John’s gospel, John the Baptist highlights Jesus’ preexistence.

From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace,

All humankind has been greatly enriched by this divine presence, transformed by the love that first prompted God’s revelation and Christ’s incarnation.

Charin anti charitos, “grace in place of grace,” is a phrase only used here. It has been interpreted in various ways, including an indication that the Old Covenant has been replaced with the New, which is consistent with the verse that follows. Regardless, each interpretation indicates the unsearchable riches of the grace of Christ.

We can understand it as grace for grace’s sake, one grace heaped upon another.

because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

This constitutes the final break of John’s thought with that of Judaism. The revelation of the Old Covenant (the law) was but a foreshadowing of what was to be fully revealed in the New Covenant, through Christ (grace and truth).

With this statement, John demonstrates the reason the almighty God took on lowly human flesh: to give us grace and truth.

No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.

Yet another gift from Christ: a clear revelation of God to us.

By telling the story of Jesus Christ in the unique way in which he does, John is trying to help his audience see the light, that is, understand that Jesus is in their midst. All they have to do is learn to recognize that the Word has become flesh and dwells among us in the church.

Connections and Themes

Wisdom as a cosmic force.  Wisdom is part of creation from the beginning and holds sway over cosmic affairs. She inspires the praise of all creation. Told by God to live among the people, she is in their midst as a source of inspiration and encouragement for them. When joined with the Prologue of the Gospel of John, Wisdom is seen as incarnate in Jesus. In Jesus, Widsom is the Divine Word that dwells among us. In this Word, all creation has come to be and is sustained in life and destiny.

Wisdom lives among the people.  Wisdom dwells in Zion, in the holy city of Jerusalem, in the midst of the city of God. When Wisdom dwells at the heart of the community, three changes occur. First, protection is offered to the people. There is no fear, no threat; all are secure in Wisdom’s abiding presence. Second, with Wisdom comes a sense of God’s sustaining mercy and love. Third, the protection and blessing that Wisdom brings draw forth the praises of God. The people, all of the city, are inspired to give praise and thanks to God for Wisdom’s wondrous gifts.

Christ, the agent of salvation.  God is praised and blessed for the wonders of the divine gifts offered to us. Within this blessing there is the profound awareness that it is Christ who makes all good things possible. Christ is the agent of our salvation. In fact, the promise of salvation is proclaimed from the beginning of creation. Just as Wisdom was told by God to pitch her tent among the people, so the divine Word, bringing the gift of salvation, has pitched a tent amidst the people. This gracious act of God is an assurance that salvation is offered to all who are willing to receive it. Thus Christ, divine Wisdom and God among us, is the promise that all creation can be regenerated. This new life is the way of peace, the way of gratitude. It is the way of praise and thanks for the protection and blessing of God.