December 20
  (from the book: Where is the Child? by Fr. R. Marcos (Makati: St Pauls); 

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First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14

The Lord spoke to Ahaz: Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!”

Then [Isaiah] said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.

A. Short Background on the First Reading

1. It will be good if we go to the historical context of this First Reading, to recall the situation of the time it was written. Israel was then a kingdom divided into two.  There was the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. The northern kingdom ravaged Jerusalem, the holy city and the capital of the southern kingdom. King Ahaz was the leader of the south.

When Isaiah prophesied that the southern kingdom would experience a victory, thanks to God’s fidelity, King Ahaz had a hard time believing this claim. It is then that Isaiah uttered the words that provide the motive of believing. There would be a sign that “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.”  The woman was not given a particular name but she must have been Ahaz’s young wife, and the child was his heir, Hezekiah. Hezekiah would continue the lineage of David in the monarchy of Israel.

2. This reading is an excellent springboard for the Gospel, on the annunciation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary.  Isaiah’s young woman is now identified with Mary, another young woman of Israel, a virgin, soon to be the mother of the Messiah.  The child is Jesus, the true Emmanuel, the longed-for Messiah.  Jesus is of the line of David and so he supports the prophecy of Isaiah regarding the continuity of the monarchy, with Jesus now the ultimate and eternal King.

B. Reflections on the First Reading

Reflection 1: God’s initiative

The First Reading puts in the foreground an essential aspect of God’s way of dealing with humanity, which will be conspicuous in the message of the Incarnation. It is the divine initiative, the gratuitousness of God towards us. It is not a merely unexpected act, but a surprising one in favor even of the rebels, like Ahaz.

The Lord proposes to Ahaz a saving solution towards victory. He asks the king to demand a sign so he can bring it about. Ahaz pretends not to desire offending the Lord and so he does not want to ask for a sign. But God knows it is not the real reason. Ahaz’s heart is stubborn and his mind closed.

Even if the king does not ask, God continues to give the sign. This aspect of God’s initiative is very important because it defines the essential content of salvation: it is the work of God flowing from his mercy, not a result of any man’s action, but only because God wills it.

God loved us first. If we believe this, then we are ready to receive the joy of Christmas. We do not need to do anything for God to embrace us and take us to himself. God’s love is a gift and as such, one to be gratefully received and celebrated.

Reflection 2: God in Our Midst

This is the most famous of the prophecies of Isaiah. In it we see not just the promise of an ordinary king.  As Christians, we see in it the promise of God’s own Son coming among the people.  He has a name: Emmanuel, God is with us.

To believe in Emmanuel is to believe that God is always present, never absent; God is always available, never too preoccupied; God is always at work, never taking his time in rescuing his beloved.

Jesus is truly the Emmanuel born of the virgin and sign of God’s abiding love.  As he lived his earthly life, Jesus showed that God is present to all—rich and poor, educated and ignorant, healthy and sick, men and women, young and old.  But in a special way, in Jesus, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the alienated find a companion and a secure refuge, a remedy to the loneliness that entraps them in their life of separation from the rest of society.

But the name Emmanuel finds its real and most powerful resonance neither on the crib nor in the public ministry.  Its most cogent expression will come towards the end of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus will be most Emmanuel when he hangs on the cross. He is supremely Emmanuel as he rises from the dead.

God-with-us: in our experiences of pain, helplessness, and death. This promise was made first in the form of a child born in a manger.  The fulfillment will happen in the form of the One who is crucified and risen.

Reflections 3: Sacraments and Sacramentals

It is natural for people to look for signs. There are an abundance of signs around us today. But the meaning that we derive from them is limited because we stop at the superficial and secondary causes accessible and comprehensible to human reason. We do not progress towards the ultimate since we stop with what seems enough.

It seems that now things are easier to understand. There are few mysteries left unexplained. There are ready explanations for almost anything. The reading calls us to see beyond the signs around us and probe deeper to meet the giver of the signs.

In the Church God supplies us with a multitude of signs of his love. There are effective signs from the seven sacraments. There are sacramentals, little objects that remind us of God each moment. These are simple signs from the world around us and yet they point to something beyond the material world, to Someone who is the source of all that is good. When we receive the signs in faith, we encounter not merely the objects but the one who gives them power to alter our lives and make us better.

Reflection 4: The Eucharist

Thanks to the Eucharist, we now celebrate Christmas not as a thing of the past, an event that happened two thousand years ago, but as something present today, a reality happening even now.

God-with-us, Emmanuel, is an actual reality today. He is not a distant God but his presence is part of our existence. Jesus truly comes in our midst, through the power of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is not a simple remembrance of the death of Jesus but, above all, the renewal of his victory over death. Having offered himself for love, he now conquers death and obtains new life. Even in his humanity, he is now living before the Father and side by side with us, as he has promised: I am with you until the end of the world.

And thanks to the grace of God that we can celebrate the Eucharist, in which the living Christ comes to us and gives himself as our food, so that we in turn may continue living. Emmanuel is not only God-with-us, but God-in-us.

Let us thank the Lord for the gift of his love. He did not only want to pass through our world for a couple of years, so that his memory will be retained as a faraway ideal for people to remember. Rather he desires that his earthly life be continually present, and that he can enter our willing hearts. He is here in the Eucharist as God’s greatest gift to all.

GOSPEL: Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said,“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

A. Short Background on the Gospel

1. A few years ago, an international magazine ran a cover story on how the Virgin Mary is crossing the boundaries of faith traditions and is being recognized by an increasing number of Protestant communities.  This is because of the fact that the gospel paints the picture of Mary as the disciple par excellence. She was the first to hear the Word, to accept it, proclaim it, and live it. 

We must not think, however, that Mary’s assent to the angel’s offer of divine maternity was as spontaneous and ready as it appears in the narrative. More likely, Mary’s response was the culmination of an entire life of being sensitive and appreciative of the many visits of the Holy Spirit in her life. These daily affirmations of her loving surrender to the Father you made her offer the definitive “Yes” to the role she would play in salvation history.

2. The purpose of this Gospel is to clarify the transcendental roots of Jesus, that is, that Jesus possesses a divine nature. Yes, he is truly human because he was born of the humble maiden Mary but he is truly God because it was not any man responsible for his birth but the creative power of the Holy Spirit.

The believer is asked to respond by affirming his faith in the divinity of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose divine origin is manifest in the words of the angel. Mary precedes us in accepting this mystery with joy in her obedience and surrender.  Great things happen to those who have faith.

B. Reflections on the Gospel

Reflection 1: God made Man

Let us ponder on the identity of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew’s gospel, care has been taken to show the human line of Jesus’ origin. Joseph provides the legal lineage of Jesus from the house of David. Matthew shows us that Jesus truly embraced human nature in being inserted into the history of a real human family.

Now we hear from Luke’s gospel about the divine nature of the Lord. He is Son of the Most High God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s creative action in the womb of Mary, reminiscent of the Spirit’s action in the original creation. Jesus was born without a normal male participation in reproduction but only through God’s powerful will.

We are not lacking in numerous sects and cults that preach a merely human Jesus.  Since it is impossible for man to become God, then the human Jesus cannot be divine, they say. But that is not the flow of events in Jesus’ life. It is the divine who became man, and all things, the angel assures us, are possible with God. Jesus is the Son of God, with both a human and divine nature and nothing less than this truth will be enough for Christianity.

It will do us good to remember this every Christmastime so that our faithful will not be led astray by persistent and resurgent false teachings that dilute the facts given in the gospel.

Reflection 2: Mary’s Strength

We love the Virgin Mary and specially wonder at the event of her dramatic encounter with God. Many times, though, we think of Mary as merely placid or passive participant in the plan of God.

The Gospel, however, depicts a woman of faith, not of fear, a woman of decision and not of mere submission. She was troubled but she engaged the angel in a dialogue of clarification. When she was assured and her doubts answered, she expressed her belief and the rest was history. There is strength in this woman of the annunciation. She accepted to be the partner of the Holy Spirit in this crucial moment in the plan of salvation.

Later, this same Mary would join her Son in the first miracle at Cana.  She would follow him as he preached in the villages and communities.  She would trace the drops of his blood along the way of the passion. And while the apostles ran for cover, Mary the mother of the Lord would be recorded in the gospel as the faithful and intrepid woman who stood at the foot of the cross. She would be there, too, in the gathering of the early Christians while they waited for the Holy Spirit to descend on the young Church.

Let us reflect on the consistency of Mary’s “Yes,” the strength of her character revealed to us at the annunciation. It is from there that her faith grew and expanded towards a life of fidelity and holiness in the midst of many trials.

Reflection 3: The Angelus

This Gospel scene is not a remote event that is narrated once in the gospel. As Catholics, we have it as a picture perennially etched in our minds and hearts and immortalized in a very simple but meaningful daily prayer—the Angelus.  Do we still pray the Angelus? Do we stop our shopping when this prayer is aired in the mall we visit?

It is our wish that every day will be Christmas day.  And yet, in our devotional life, we are given this opportunity to relive and relish Christmas morning, noon, and evening, all our lives.

There was a time when Filipino Catholics stopped everything they were doing to join in prayer when the Angelus bell rang from the nearest parish belfry.  It might be good to pause and interiorly pray this short formula that is a constant celebration of Christmas, a steady daily reminder of God’s love for us through the Incarnation.

Reflection 4: You Are Important

The Gospel tells us how great Jesus is, that he is truly God’s Son, and as the Creed says: God from God, light from light, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.

But despite his exalted position as God, he lowered himself to embrace our human condition, weak as it is, decadent as it is, sinful as it is. Why is this so? This is because God loves us and in Jesus, this love became concrete. We are important to God. We belong to God, not merely as objects in creation but as children in his extended family. The Lord loved us even before we turn to him. This is a great mystery and is the source of so great a hope for all of us! God, in Jesus, made himself a personal gift to his children. God our Father sent us Jesus our Brother to welcome us to his family.

This shows how important we are to God. He did not come to treat us with contempt, to reprove and correct us, to make us realize our mistakes. Jesus came to save us by embracing who we are, by making our ordinary lives his own.

Do we believe that we are important? Do we value our own life and that of our neighbor? If we are important to God, then we must believe that he has a plan for us. We must take heart and never give in to despair and loss of heart.

Reflection 5: God-with-us

We have two great readings today. Today’s Mass is in fact called the “Golden Mass” because of the beauty, specifically of the Gospel. 

In the First Reading, God challenges King Ahaz: Ask me for something; tell me your request; make a wish! Ahaz refuses with the pretense that he does not want to offend the Lord; that he does not want to bother the Lord; that he is shy and embarrassed to ask.  In reality, and God knows this, in his heart, Ahaz does not believe that asking God for a sign will make a difference in his life.  He is proud.

But God’s generosity and mercy breaks through the king’s refusal. If you will not ask, I will still give, I will still provide. Nothing can stop my expression of love. And so through the prophet, God makes a promise, and with the promise comes a wonderful name, Immanuel—God with us!

With this name, what more can you ask. Here is a God who reveals his one desire—to join us, to walk with us, to journey with us, to embrace us, to be present in a way no other has been present. So this beautiful name is more than a title, it is a pact; it is more than a promise, it is the truth about our faithful God.

The next time you are tempted to say:

“I’m alone,” remember Emmanuel—he is with me; 

“I’m sad,” believe Emmanuel, he is with me;

“I’m hurting,” say Emmanuel, my God is in my heart. 

“I miss my family and friends,” cling to Emmanuel, God is my constant companion.

“Nobody understands me,” turn to Emmanuel, he is there for me.

“Nobody loves me,” reach out to Emmanuel; he holds me in the palm of his hand.

Call on the Lord, our Emmanuel—the God ever present to us!

How is God my Emmanuel? He comes down from heaven to be present to me. His journey from heaven to Bethlehem has been planned from the beginning of time. That is why it is important to look at the Virgin Mary. She shows us how to welcome the God who comes. “I am his handmaid; I am his servant.”

Only one thing can prevent my Emmanuel experience. It is my refusal to welcome him, my refusal to believe him, my refusal to receive him. It may seem very easy to welcome God when things are going smooth, when there are no problems, no troubles and trials, no sickness and heartaches.

To welcome Emmanuel is to welcome him even in darkness. The saints were able to do this. Many faithful people around us are struggling to show us the way.

Today let us address our God as Emmanuel; let us welcome him with joy!

4. O Key of David

December 20: “O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel; who open and none can shut; who shut and none can open: come and lead to freedom the prisoner who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.”

St. Anthony of Padua must be the busiest saint in heaven, looking for the things we lost, and most of these must be the simple key! If keys are that important, why do we often lose them?

Keys are crucial but they are very small and so, negligible. When we misplace them, we suffer much frustration. So much time is wasted looking for it and our whole day’s timetable of activities is then affected. But when we have the right key and it works, we have access to important things in life. 

The image of the key is most clearly reflective of the power of Jesus.  Jesus is the key to our liberation.  He unlocks, he opens, he releases, by the power of his word and by his personal presence.

When Jesus met needy people, did he not unlock something closed and stuck for a long time in their bodies and spirits? Like the woman bent double for 18 years, was there not a “clinking sound” as Jesus commanded her to stand erect (see Lk 13: 10-17)? As Jesus forgave the sinful woman anointing his feet, she must have heard a “clink” in her heart and her tears flowed. When the lepers were walking away to show themselves to the priests, surely they heard an interior “clink” again as their bodies regenerated and became whole. When the demoniac was freed from evil spirits, the “clink” must have been almost audible as the demons transferred to a herd of pigs nearby.

As Jesus walked on this earth, rusty locks flung open, shut doors spread out, and shuttered souls found release.

Jesus is the key to a new order as he brings something different, radical, and unique. While he opens doors, people can now come out of their shame, pain, fear, and self-loathing. He ushers them into a path of confidence, peace, and light.

What aspect of your life do you need Jesus to unlock? Be ready to receive a flood of his blessings!