December 21

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

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First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18a

Shout for joy, daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.

On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, Zion, do not be discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; Who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, Who will sing joyfully because of you, as on festival days.


A. Short Background on the First Reading

1. Remember Ahaz the king and his wife, the young woman or virgin mentioned by Isaiah in yesterday’s First Reading? The prophet Zephaniah, from whom comes today’s reading, was the great grandson of Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz and his wife, the son promised as sign of God’s help and faithful love for his people. Zephaniah was the contemporary of Jeremiah and like him preached repentance and conversion, in the context of God’s impending punishment and judgment on the nation for idolatry and decadence in moral and religious life. Zephaniah comes across as a harsh and condemnatory judge of human nature. But this reading comes from the only positive section of his prophecy. It is a call to rejoice because salvation is near!

2. An alternate reading for today comes from the Song of Songs (2:8-14). It says: “For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the turtle dove is heard in our land.”

We have no winter in the Philippines but only a brief cold season from December to early February. But those who experience winter know that it is not all snowman and skiing, white blanket all over the place and people’s breath sending vapor in the air. No, it’s not all romantic; winter is a difficult season—no vegetation, animals in hibernation, people’s movements curtailed by the severe cold. But God’s word assures us that winter is passing. Soon it will be over. After winter comes spring, evidence of new life.

B. Reflections on the First Reading

Reflection 1: Christmas Sadness?

Even before Christmas comes, our hearts vacillate between joy and sadness. Someone said that there is such a thing as Christmas sadness. Yes, the music may be merry, the lights all aglow and pleasing to the eyes, the gifts are overflowing and laughter can be heard in every party we attend.

But in the heart of many people, there is a serious question; is there really a cause for rejoicing? Christmas itself does not remove our present problems. Christmas does not cure our daily woes. And so in the midst of the season of joy, many people focus more on the reason not to be happy. We look back at the past and enumerate our mistakes and sins. Or we project into the future and shudder with fear for what’s in store for us there.

Yet God invites us to joy. If we will look for joy outside of us, we will be frustrated. If we will depend on others to make us happy, we will be dismayed, because joy is an inner disposition. It is a decision we make. We must know that joy is, first of all, interior, in one’s heart, where we are most at peace with God. Yes, our joy can only be found in the Lord who enters our hearts and reigns within as king.

But here is the mystery of Christ’s joy. It can coexist with pain and suffering, darkness and trials of life. The fact that we face challenges does not rob us of peace and hope. True joy cannot be overcome by life’s adversities. The saints are living witnesses to this and Christians discover this when they realize that their joy comes only when Christ enters the heart!

Reflection 2: This, Too, Will Pass

Many times in life we grow impatient. When we do not see immediate results, we grumble. When we feel that we are forgotten, we complain. When we think that we are dropped on the ground, we lament. So we need the divine assurance that our winter is passing. It will not be always winter in our lives.

Tragedies and sorrows will end. Even difficulties cannot endure forever. While we are passing through the test, there is a promise of newness at the end. With faith, we will conquer. With faith we will rise again. As the new expressions go: All will be well or This, too, will pass.

Let us pray that we may be able to handle the hardships of life, that we may be able to embrace these as part of the mysteries of our earthly existence. In confronting them, and not running away from them, we prepare ourselves for the joy that God offers us in his Son.

GOSPEL: Luke 1:39-45

During those days Mary set out  and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

A.           Short Background on the Gospel

1. The Gospel, which depicts the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, pronounces the “blessedness” of Mary three times, thus providing the scriptural foundation for Mary’s title as “Blessed” Virgin. The declaration is placed on the mouth of Elizabeth on two accounts: the faith of Mary, which occasioned her acquiescence to the will of God announced by the angel, and the fact that she bore the Son of God. This goes to show that Mary is blessed not because of her own merit but because of her decisive role in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. The visitation is a great sign of hope, which provides the right foundation for the hope proclaimed by the prophet Zephaniah. This hope guarantees that when we are isolated and alone and in need of encouragement, we can count on the presence of Mary, whose motherly heart is ever aware of our condition, ever mindful of her suffering children.

B. Reflections on the Gospel

Reflection 1: Count Your Blessings

What a great way to start this dawn Mass! We are before two women who are conscious that God has been good to them. They are conscious of being filled with blessings. In the Holy Land, in the Church of the Visitation, there stands a memorial depicting two pregnant women happily greeting each other.

Elizabeth celebrates that she is a mother, in spite of the fact that she is past the childbearing age. She is to be the mother of a great prophet, John the Baptist.

Mary, too, rejoices over the good event in her life. She, too, is a mother, though she is a virgin. She is to be the mother of God’s only Son.

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is her thanksgiving for the gift she received, a way of paying forward in the form of service. Elizabeth’s warm welcome is her acknowledgment that God indeed works in very mysterious ways.

This season, almost everything deserves a second look. What was easy to ignore, neglect, or take for granted may indeed yield fresh meaning. If we consider the things around us, whether people, possessions, or events, is it possible that we, too, can be conscious that our lives are filled with blessings?

Too often, we remove the beauty of life by focusing on our complaints, gripes, and negative comments about the irritants around us. We don’t hear Elizabeth complaining that this pregnancy is a burden to her old age; or Mary lamenting that this pregnancy prematurely ended her carefree, single years. They do not waste time on the negative impact of things, but they enrich their lives by focusing on the positive implications of the things that unfold.

Surely, God has blessed us in ways big and small. Why don’t we spend some time looking at our lives again, this time identifying how much God worked to make us happy, or to supply our needs, or to protect us from danger? Then maybe, we will see something beautiful in the faces of people, in the banality of our occupation or in the ordinariness of our lives.

Reflection 2: Mary, Disciple and Apostle

The Gospel today completes the response of Mary to the angel’s message. Her initial reaction, after her fear melted away, is to pronounce her Yes to God. But saying Yesto God does not mean merely giving birth, nurturing and caring for the Child given to her. She hastens to the aid of her cousin Elizabeth, an elderly woman about to give birth as well.

Here we see the metamorphosis of Mary from being a disciple to becoming an apostle. At the annunciation, Mary became the first disciple of Jesus. I encountered an article authored by a Pentecostal saying that Mary was the first disciple and the model of all disciples. Why? Because a disciple means a listener. Mary listened, absorbed, soaked in the message of God for her. At the annunciation, she shows us how to sit and pray, reflect and learn at the feet of the Master.

It is not enough to listen attentively to God. A life given to God is a life of mission and so Mary also became an apostle. What is life as an apostle like? An apostle goes forth with a mission from the Lord. The twelve apostles were the closest friends of Jesus, and after being with him and learning from him, they went forth to preach about him to all parts of the world. Knowing Jesus intimately, the apostles labored and even died for their Master.

Mary is not only an apostle; she is the Queen of Apostles. She had a sense of mission right after her encounter with the angel. She rushed to Elizabeth to share with her the blessings she received, by way of humble service. We picture Mary in her usual pose as sitting or kneeling or standing statically. But try to picture her as a woman running excitedly to share herself with others.

At the annunciation, Mary became the first disciple, her heart open to receive the Word of God. At the visitation, Mary became the first apostle, wasting no time to have the gospel shared not by preaching but by witnessing. No wonder, we consider Mary the first Christian, the mother and perfect follower of her Son.

Is our response to God complete like that of Mary? Do we both listen to the Lord and desire to offer ourselves in service?

In this season, we indeed love to render some form of service. And yet, it is always easier to serve the people who are already close to us. We have gifts for family and friends. But like Mary, can we go out of our way to reach out to those who truly need our comforting presence and our useful service?

What parish or community program do we join that enables us to reach out to those who need our love most? Let us listen to the Lord and, like Mary, run forward, sharing God’s love with others.

Reflection 3: Birth and Death

Does it make sense that we celebrate a person’s birth by celebrating his death? This is precisely what we do these days as we celebrate Christ’s birth within the Mass—these novena Masses, the RorateMasses, the Vigil and Midnight Mass, the Christmas Day Mass. In the Eucharist, we solemnly celebrate the birth of the Lord in the context of the memorial of his death and resurrection.

It is most fitting to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is the death of Jesus, the mystery of his cross and resurrection that gives sense to his birth. And it is thanks to the death and resurrection of the Lord that we can now fully celebrate and understand the full significance of his birth… and yes, all the other events of his life.

The visitation that we commemorate acquires full meaning today in the Mass because we contemplate the coming of the Child in the manger; we contemplate the love that God has prepared as a gift for us all. A son is given… a child is born for us…

Mary shares that gift to Elizabeth, knowing by some religious instinct, that the entire life of her son is totally oriented toward a future of total self-giving and sacrifice. It is a gift that will be completed and fulfilled when Jesus gives his life on the cross. In every moment of his life, Jesus presents himself to do the Father’s will, giving his own life, pouring out his blood so that the world might have life.

Pondering on the total gift that he offers us all the way to the cross, we can now better celebrate the birth of Jesus, and welcome him as the gift that will be totally unwrapped in his moment of passion and glory.

5. O Radiant Dawn

December 21: O Rising Dawn, splendor of eternal Light and Sun of Justice: come and illuminate those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

How long is the night? For many people today, the night is very long! And how we pray that it is over. We go through sleepless nights because of problems that wouldn’t give our minds rest. Sick people spend the night awake because of the pain and the medications they take. Some people are deprived of sleep because of stress and pressures.

In the night, there is fear; there is helplessness; there is darkness. So, with dawn comes a renewed appreciation. We welcome the first pale streaks in the sky, the first sounds of awakening people in the house and animals in the farm. Dawn is beautiful. It is a sign that the night has passed and we are in the threshold of a new day. Isn’t the sky so peaceful and serene at dawn?

We also experience the dawn in a larger sense. A new job, an approved project, an exam successfully passed, the excitement over a new book, a film or a favorite dish, or renewed health, a second chance in life—these are signs of dawn in daily life.

As Christmas draws near, all our anticipation is gathered up in this antiphon prayer. We pray that we may be rescued from darkness. What does it mean that God comes to us as the breaking dawn? Perhaps, it is that he visits us and supplies our need for reassurance, that we are loved, that we are important, that we belong to him alone.

Where do we now need the light of dawn to shine in our lives? Who are the people we want to lead to that light?