December 23
  (from the book: Where is the Child? by Fr. R. Marcos (Makati: St Pauls); 

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First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24

[Thus says the Lord God:] Now I am sending my messenger— he will prepare the way before me; and the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand firm when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the Levites, refining them like gold or silver, that they may bring offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord, as in ancient days, as in years gone by.

Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction.

A. Short Background on the First Reading

1. The Old Testament book of Malachi could have been written by a prophet with the same name. It could also be that the title was referring to the “messenger” mentioned in the text. This messenger belongs to the eschatological future; that means, he would come at the end. This messenger is also identified with Elijah, the prophet whose return is awaited by the people. As we read this biblical passage, a few days before Christmas, we are reminded that the circumstances of the Lord’s birth find resonance in the utterances of old. Therefore there is a complete continuity between Old and New in the biblical view of salvation. Christian writers of the Scriptures equate the “messenger” of the book of Malachi to the figure of John the Baptist.

2. Malachi’s book provides six oracles in which he reveals his favorable stance on the levitical priests, his support of the people’s obligations to contribute to the temple and its personnel, his concern for the abandoned wife, the forsaken people, and the defenseless.

Part of this book addresses the problem of the cynicism of the people due to the increasing prosperity of evildoers. God promised that there would a future judgment in which justice would prevail. A time would come when society would be purified from its malpractices and sins.

B. Reflections on the First Reading

Reflection 1: On Purification

How can the First Reading be numbered among the messages that are so close to Christmas? It seems to have so little in common with the Christmas theme because it speaks in terrible terms of a coming purification: God is like a fire, he is portrayed as lye (which is a strong solution for cleansing); he sits refining and purifying people as if working on silver and metals.

But if we ponder on this a little more, we can appreciate how it is a reading appropriate for the coming Christmas feast. Truly we need purification to welcome the Lord who is to come. We must ask the Lord to purify our hearts, in order to welcome worthily the Christ Child. If we are humble, we can truly welcome the gift of God.

The reading may have begun in a tone of doom but it ends with a note of hope. God does not threaten his people because he hates them. His strong words are a loving reminder that they may return to him and find his mercy and joy.

A very good Catholic practice is to go to Confession before Christmas. In this sacrament, we are purified from our sins so that we can joyfully receive the blessings of the Christ Child. Try going to Confession before Christmas.

Reflection 2: Prophets and Saints

As we prepare for Christmas, the Lord gives us people who will enable us to focus on the message of the season; people who will help us avoid being drowned in many distracting thoughts, activities, and traditions. We need people to remind us how to celebrate our faith and its rituals correctly so that they will not be merely routine actions. These people are the heroes of our faith, who, like the prophet Elijah, instill in us the right attitude in the midst of our festivities.

The prophets are first among these spiritual guides, and listening to their message can truly bring about conversion in our hearts. As Christians, we also have the saints who are fine examples of faith and are our true brothers and sisters in our daily struggle for holiness. The saints can help us appreciate Christmas with a freshness of spirit.

Why don’t we revisit the stories of the Advent and Christmas saints and learn from their teachings and their virtues? In them we see concretely the way to incarnate the message of Christmas. Through them we learn to cherish our faith not only on special occasions but every day.

GOSPEL: Luke 1:57-66

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”

But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”  So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.  He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed.

Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.

A. Background on the Gospel

1. There is joy in the household of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their only child, the child of the angelic promise, is born. The rejoicing affects not only the parents but also the relatives and neighbors who also know the mysterious, if not miraculous, implications of this unexpected arrival of a child to aged parents. The mood of joy is now intense, as we are prepared to witness another birth, the coming of the Messiah, whose herald John the Baptist is.

The boy is circumcised on the eighth day. Circumcision incorporates the child into Israel. Luke views Christianity as a logical outgrowth of the Jewish faith. In stressing the circumcision ritual, Luke links John, who is part of the inauguration of Christianity, to the originating faith or religion of Judaism.

2. A central feature of the biblical passage is the naming of the child. The parents of the child both agree that the name will be “John.” Departing from the practice of naming a boy after his father, the mother instructs her family and neighbors about her preferred name. Zechariah who is deaf and mute at this time, and cannot hear what his wife is saying, writes confirming the name to be given to his son. This amazes the people who witness the congruency of the couple’s choice of name.

The name John means “the Lord has shown favor,” or “God is gracious.” The favor is felt foremost in the household of Zechariah. But soon the graciousness of God through this child will be manifest when he starts living his life as a preparation for the coming of the long-awaited Savior of the world.

B. Reflections on the Gospel

Reflection 1: Meaning of Names

Do you know the real name of the Pope? Do you know the full name of our President? Do you know the full name of your boss? While we may know the full names of celebrities, sometimes it is even more puzzling to recall the complete names of people you are familiar with!

The people of the Bible ascribed great importance to names of individuals. There is power in a name.  A name reveals the character of its bearer. Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales believes that he is a jolly person because his name means joy. I know a person named Soledad who often falls into depression and Soledad means sorrow. My high school classmate was named Ligaya and she is a happy, positive character.

Furthermore, names make us known to others, and in a more profound sense, known by our God. That is why names are given to us in Baptism, and sometimes also in Confirmation. This practice is like allowing God to name us, to call us with a personal, affectionate address. The Gospel today reminds us that John’s name was given to his parents through the archangel Gabriel. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how the same angel gave the son of Mary the name Jesus.

Lastly, biblical and Christian names manifest the destiny or the life-mission of a person. John means “God is gracious,” and this graciousness shone in the mission of John to remove the stigma of shame of barrenness of his parents and to call to repentance the whole house of Israel. Jesus means “The Lord saves” or “Savior.” Indeed, the Lord Jesus came to rescue us from the clutches of sin and death.

At baptism, we give names to children. Are the names we give significant to their future mission as Christians? Are these names meaningful and will serve as constant reminders that they belong to the Lord? Are we all living up to our name as Christians?

Reflection 2: Simply the Beginning

In any culture, the birth of a child is a cause for festive spirit. This is to signify that every child is indeed a gift graciously received. Christmas, too, is about birth and the promise of a bright future that comes with it.

But we also know that the birth of a child is just the beginning. Awaited for nine months, the birth signals another series of more waiting—for the first smile, the first word, the first step, the first day of school, everything! In Italy, part of the Nativity scene is a portrayal of the “first steps” of the Baby Jesus, to the delight of Mary and Joseph.

The birth of John the Baptist, which brought intense hope to his waiting parents, was merely the start of a new spiritual journey for Israel and the start of a truly intimate history of God’s interaction with the people he loves.

So it is with our Christmas celebration. It does not end with the last day of Simbang Gabi tomorrow. It does not end with Midnight Mass or the Day Mass of Christmas. Christmas is the birth of a new journey with God. If we are serious in becoming partners with the Lord, we will discover that there are many more things coming our way: many more blessings, challenges, lessons, and loving encounters.

7. O Emmanuel

December 23: “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the hope of all nations and their Savior: come and save us, O Lord our God!”

We come to the final antiphon, O Emmanuel! God is with us! As we pray today, we ask the Lord to walk with us. We do not need an abstract God, an angry God, a distant God. We need a God who wears a human skin, and so is close to us as our pillow.

Jesus is the God who wears a human skin, who wears our humanity underneath his own skin. Many things make us afraid. The future threatens us. We need someone who will promise to be there for us, no matter what happens.

Today, be sensitive to the experience of a loving God. May God the Emmanuel be the fulfillment of every longing. May he come, not in abrupt or dramatic fashion but in subtle ways. When he comes to walk with us this way, let us develop alertness to his quiet presence and be attuned to his silent and hidden manner of drawing near to us.