You can tell it's almost Christmas: decorations going up (already?) and liturgists planning for the season. If you're catechizing any groups, here's a chance to get a head start on the merriest season of the year.
First Sunday of Advent (Nov. 29)
This Sunday begins a new week, a new season, a new church year, and a new round in the three-year lectionary cycle. But the themes will look a lot like the last few Sundays, because endings and beginnings are remarkably alike. Notice that the responsorial psalm that ended the lectionary cycle last week is the same one that begins the new cycle this week.
Imagine Advent as a historical funnel. It starts with a big theme: the end of the world, passes through some awesome prophecies, and ends with the little town of Bethlehem. Or imagine it as history going backwards: it starts with the future and ends 2,000 years ago.
Today's Gospel (Mt. 24: 37-44) comes from the end of Jesus' life, when he talks about his second coming. His description of how some will be left behind and others taken away introduced the whole concept of the "rapture" to fundamentalism. If this is an issue with your catechetical group, it could be time to deal with interpretation of the Bible.
Advent's prophecies are spectacular. They deserve good study. In fact, it would be a great time to discuss the nature of prophecy, who the prophets were and why they said what they said. This week's (Is 2: 1-5) sounds the theme of universality: all the nations stream into Jerusalem to be saved. This huge theme tips us off about why Christmas is so important: Christmas is more than a manger in Bethlehem; it's about the salvation of the world. This passage includes the famous line about beating swords into plowshares. This Sunday we could examine the peace movement within the church.
The second reading takes up the same theme as the Gospel -- the second coming of Christ (Rom 13: 11-14). Paul wonders when the end will come, and admonishes people about proper moral behavior: We should act as if the end is near. Few of us do.
Themes for this Sunday may include the second coming, biblical interpretation, peace, moral behavior, the rapture, and prophecy. For help on scriptural interpretation, see Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation."
Second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 6)
Advent introduces to us one of its favorite figures: John the Baptist. He figures in today and next Sunday alike.
Today we meet John baptizing at the Jordan and challenging people to a moral life that prepares the way for the Lord (Mt 3: 1-12). John's message of conversion needs to be heard in every age. Catechesis could help us understand what John's baptism demanded and what his teaching still challenges us to do.
The second reading (Rom 15: 4-9) looks back to last week's theme of the second coming, while it looks ahead to the epiphany theme of the salvation of the gentiles. Paul urges the people to lie as a community and in hope for the coming of Christ.
Today's prophecy, like all the others this Advent, is dawn from Isaiah (11: 1-10). It imagines a kingdom where animals will live in peace. The Messiah whom Isaiah awaits is one who will usher n an age so new no one could imagine what it will be like. Catechesis could focus on the notion of "Messiah" and what to expect of his future age.
This passage, incidentally, is a cornerstone for the Sacrament of Confirmation in the western church. The confirmation prayer quotes it directly.
Catechesis this week may take up conversion, baptism, John the Baptist, the relationship between sacramental rituals and moral behavior, community, hope, the messianic age, and confirmation. For help on conversion, see the "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults," no. 75.
Third Sunday of Advent (Dec. 13)
Today's first reading (Is 35: 1-6a, 10) tells us more about the messianic age. We can expect verdant vegetation, strength for the weary, and miraculous cures. Joy will abound. The prophecy of physical cures set the stage for the coming of Jesus, whose miracles will proclaim that he fulfills what Israel longed for.
This week finds John the Baptist in jail (Mt 11:2-11). John prefigures Jesus not only in his birth, but also in his suffering and death. John asks if Jesus is the Messiah, and we hear about the miracles Jesus works, signs that he is the messiah whom Isaiah and all Israel have waited for. Note again the sequence of Gospel readings: Advent has very little to do with the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, and much more to do with the meaning of Jesus' coming the second time.
Our second reading switches authors this week to James (5: 7-10). He admits that the wait for the coming of Christ hurts. The pain and suffering that accompany waiting test one's patience with God. The purpose of human suffering could provide a good catechetical discussion.
Catechesis this week could include signs of the messiah then and now, the role of prophecy and prefigurement, and the suffering which accompanies waiting. For help on this theme, see the introduction to the "Order for the Pastoral Care and Anointing of the Sick," nos. 1-4.
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Dec.20)
Finally, Advent turns to the Scriptures we've been waiting to hear: the Gospel announcing the coming birth of Christ (Mt 1: 18-24) and the marvelous prophecy about the birth of a child from a young girl (Is 7: 10-14). The doctrine of the virgin birth is a cornerstone to today's readings, and well deserves some catechesis.
Returning to Paul (Rom 1:1-7), we hear about the birth of Jesus from the family of David, and its centrality with the teachings on the Holy Spirit and the Resurrection. These are core teachings for the church, and it's important to understand them all.
This Sunday turns to some weighty matters in church teaching. Sometimes we let Christmas come and go without thinking about what this miracle means. Today's readings coach us toward some critical matters: the virgin birth, the miracle of the incarnation, and the role of the Holy Spirit. For help on the role of Mary in the story of Jesus' birth, see the last chapter of Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," chapter 8, nos. 52-69.
Christmas Day (Dec. 25)
Truth to be told, you should be home eating ham and turkey with your family today, not at church talking about the 12 Scripture readings the lectionary provides for us. But these passages are so wonderful that it's good to talk about them some time during the season. The texts are too rich; so let's just look at the Gospels.
The Mass at Midnight (Lk 2: 1-14) and at Dawn (Lk 2: 5-20) tells the classic story of the birth of Christ. If you do nothing else this season, at least read them, pray over them, and marvel at them. People come today just to hear the story again. Let's tell it with joy. The readings announce that Jesus is the Savior -- that's what his name means. The arrival of the shepherds proclaims that he has come to save us all and deserves our homage.
The other two Gospels usually scare people away. The genealogy of our Lord (Mt 1: 1-25) is like reading a page from the phone book. But find a good commentary, and learn about some of those names. Like any family tree, there are some characters in there, and the genealogy itself proclaims the mystery of salvation history.
The opening of John's Gospel is no less formidable. But again, a reflection on this passage is well worth the effort. The central theme here is that the second person of the Trinity is bigger than Jesus of Nazareth: the second person, the "Word," pre-existed with the Father and took flesh on Christmas Day. This is absolutely critical in understanding the nature of Jesus and the plan of salvation.
These themes -- the incarnation, salvation, the Word, the poor -- these are not the things you think about while kids unwrap toys, but without them the toys are empty. So would be life.
Holy Family (Dec. 27)
This feast is fairly new to our church calendar, but a welcome addition. The first two readings give good inspiration for leading a family life, which cares for others (Col 3:12-21) and upholds values (Eccl 3: 2-6, 12-14). They make good study for any family striving to be true to its commitments and love.
The Gospel (Mt 2:1-12) carries the Christmas story forward a few steps, telling us about the flight into Egypt. Coming on the feast of the Holy Family, it reminds us of the rigorous demands family life can make. It might also be an occasion to catechize about the role of dreams and prophecies in the Bible.
For background material you can turn to John Paul II's marvelous introduction to "The Christian Family in the Modern World," nos. 1-10.
Epiphany (Jan. 3)
The magi arrive with gifts for the king (Mt 2:1-12). Their coming tells us about Jesus, but also about us. He is the savior, but we are all able to be saved. The magi are gentiles, and their response to the good news of the birth of Christ lets us know from the earliest days of Jesus' life that he has come to save all the world.
Today's prophecy (Is 60:1-6) seeks the same reality: people and riches from every nation will be gathered together, and kings will come on camels. (This is why the magi appear on camels in Christian art.)
The second reading spells this out plainly (Eph 3: 2-3a, 5-6). Paul says that gentiles will share in the promise of Christ. This represented a change of attitude for God's chosen people: they realized that many more were chosen than they previously thought.
Catechesis this week may speak about the universal salvation Christ promises, the image of light shattering darkness, or the way Christian art blends themes from the Hebrew Scriptures into Christian belief. For assistance, John Paul II's encyclical on "evangelization in the Modern World" is invaluable.
Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 10)
The Christmas Season ends with this feast. Most folks will have thrown their trees and decorations out by sundown Christmas Day, but good catechesis might encourage Christians to take hold of the feast we created in the first place, and celebrate it clear through the whole season by leaving the decorations up at church and at home.
The biggest question about this feast is usually "Why?" Why would Jesus be baptized if he had no sin? Coincidentally, this is John's question, too, when Jesus steps up the Jordan (Mt 3:13-17). Jesus responds that his act symbolizes his submission to the will of God; it has nothing to do with whether or not he has sin. Jesus is God's servant, and that title will guide his ministry.
The servant theme is picked up by today's first reading (Is 42: 1-4, 6-7), in one of the great servant songs from the end of Isaiah. Here we hear that the spirit rests upon the servant of God, and we see it again when Jesus descends to the Jordan.
Note in today's second reading (Acts 10: 34-38) that when Peter summarizes the great moments of Jesus' life in a couple of sentences, he includes this event. The baptism of Jesus reveals the Trinity: the work of the Spirit, the plan of the Father, and the mission of the Son. It's a unique moment when God's revelation stands out in relief.
Catechesis today may focus on the Trinity, the nature of Jesus' baptism, how it differs from John's other baptisms, and how it differs from ours. Submission to the will of God, and the key moments of Jesus' life may also be explored. For assistance, turn to the "General Catechetical Directory," nos. 52-54.
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