Christmas embraces rich and poor
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the Feast of Epiphany, January 5, 2002
Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
and the Good News for the Baptism of the Lord, January 12, 2003
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalms 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
God coming as a baby was one of the most surprising maneuvers in salvation history. Almost any parent will tell you the birth of a child proves the existence of God. But no parent confuses their baby with God. By the time the child is a toddler, no question remains. And even when children seem to think they are God, no one is fooled.
But God came as an infant to turn the world upside down, to honor those who are lowly and to demonstrate care for absolutely every living thing. Christmas sweeps everyone up in the power of its music and message - kings and queens, peasants and beggars, asses and oxen. Jesus came to save the world.
The responsories we sing after the first reading at Mass for the remainder of the Christmas season tell of the high and the lowly, the full expanse of creation redeemed by the newborn son of God.
Each year on Epiphany we sing excerpts from Psalm 72 (specifically, 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13). It is a royal psalm, probably older than those we sing on Christmas Day, possibly dating to the tenth century before Christ. It prays for the king and his lineage, that they might bring about prosperity and progeny, and that all nations come to recognize the sovereignty of Israel's king.
This psalm is chosen for Epiphany primarily because of the Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12). That popular story relates the journey of the magi by the light of a star, searching for the newborn king of the Jews. When they find Jesus in Bethlehem, they prostrate before him and offer treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They are magi in the Gospel. But they are "kings of Orient" in the most famous Christmas carol about this event. Where did the composer get the idea that the magi were kings? From Psalm 72.
Verses 10-11 say, "The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him." The original psalm looked for the day when all the kings of the earth would pay tribute to Israel's king. But for Christians, the magi fulfilled the prophecy of this psalm. They came from the East, brought tribute and paid homage to Jesus.
As a refrain, we sing, "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you." The meaning of the epiphany has little to do with magi and gifts, but everything to do with God's universal reign.
For the Baptism of the Lord the lectionary offers two different responsories. Both have to do with water.
The usual psalm for this day is 29 (with verses 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10). As on Epiphany, it is chosen because of the Gospel (Mark 1:7-11). In that reading Jesus is baptized, and a voice booms from the heavens, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
Verses 3-4 of Psalm 29 say, "The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the Lord, over vast waters. The voice of the Lord is mighty; the voice of the Lord is majestic." Those words prepare us to hear the voice of God over the waters of the Jordan in the Gospel.
In its origins, this psalm acclaims God's sovereignty. Its affirmation of God's power over waters has caused some scholars to propose that this song originated in praise of a pagan storm god. Then it was taken over by Israel and applied to Israel's God.
The lectionary permits an alternate first reading and responsory for the Baptism of the Lord. This feast offers a rare responsory taken from outside the Book of Psalms (Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6). This passage links nicely to the first reading, also from Isaiah (55:1-11). There, God invites those who are thirsty to come to the water. And in the responsory we sing, "With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation." Both texts use the image of water to prophesy the refreshment God brings to the chosen people. In the Gospel, of course, the full refreshment God had planned for these people becomes manifest in the Jordan's water.
The canticle from Isaiah 12 swaggers with a gentle confidence that distinguishes it from the other psalms that end the Christmas season. Those psalms acclaim the mighty rule of God, while this canticle from Isaiah shows peaceful assurance. Christmas embraces royalty and peasantry. When God rules over all, people live in peace.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron, and coordinates the Good News column for The Catholic Key.