|He Pitched His Tent Among Us.
The Seventh Day of the Octave of the Nativity; and, the Commemoration of Saint Sylvester I, Pope.
Lessons from the proper, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I John 2: 18-21.
• Psalm 96: 1-2, 11-13.
• John 1: 1-18.
Lessons from the proper, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Titus 3: 4-7.
• Psalm 97: 3-4, 2.
• Luke 2: 15-20.
The Otdanije (Leave-Taking) of the Nativity.*
Lessons from the pentecostarion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• James 4: 7—5: 9.
• Mark 11: 27-33.
In churches dedicated to Saint Melany (otherwise omitted):
The Otdanije of the Nativity; and, the Feast of Our Venerable Mother Melany of Rome.
First & third lessons from the pentecostarion as above, second & fourth from the menaion as follows:
• Galatians 3: 23-29.
• Matthew 25: 1-13.
9:07 AM 12/31/2015 — Today's Gospel lesson is very familiar: it's the prolog to the Gospel of Saint John and, in the extraordinary form, it's read at the end of every Mass, which is why it's called the “Last Gospel.” It's had such an important role in the liturgy of the Church because it is the quintessential statement of Divine Revelation about the incarnation and the Divinity of Christ; and, it all boils down to one verse: verse fourteen: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας (1: 14).** We have here a boiler-plate translation which is not wrong: “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father's only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth” (1: 14 NABRE). Msgr, Knox's translation is almost the same; but, there is not one translation of the Bible into English which translates it word for word.
The only one that comes close is a version you may remember called the Jerusalem Bible, which is out of favor now because of it's frequent use of the name “Yahweh” throughout the Old Testament, which the Holy See has told us may no longer be used because it violates the Jewish prohibition against pronouncing the name of God. It doesn't give a word for word translation of verse fourteen in the text, but it does give it in a footnote: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν; the literal translation is, “And the word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
After Moses received the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, but before the Jews had settled in Jerusalem and built the first temple, they carried around with them, in their wanderings through the desert, a great tent called the Tabernacle, which housed the Ark of the Covenant. God dwelt in the Tabernacle, and Moses would speak to Him there. Clearly, John's use of the word σκήνοω—to pitch one's tent—is a clear statement that Jesus is the incarnation of God upon earth; and, His presence in the Tabernacle, where the Tablets of the Law were once kept, indicates that Jesus now replaces the old covenant of the Law of Moses with a new covenant, which is Himself. It may seem to you like an esoteric point, but it really isn't.
Since the time that God first revealed himself to Abraham, men have longed for God to be somewhere. A God who is pure spirit, who permeates all of nature, who lives up in the heavens, who dwells in the hearts of every man;—however else it may have been said—this kind of God has never satisfied man. He has always tried to confine God to this physical world.
The ancient Hebrews sent Moses up Mt. Sinai and he came down with the tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments. They believed God was in the Law, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they built the ark, and they placed the tablets of the Law in the ark, and they carried the ark around with them everywhere they went. They believed God was in the Ark, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they put together a tremendous tent—they called it the “Tabernacle,” even though it was just a tent—in which to keep the Ark. They would pitch this tent everywhere they settled. They believed God was in the Tabernacle, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And as Israel became a great nation under King Solomon they built a great Temple. The Bible says it was the greatest building in the world, the envy of all the kings of the earth. And in the middle of the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the Altar of Incense, where God dwelt in majesty and splendor. And from all over the world the Hebrews would come, to celebrate the great feasts and Holy Days of the Jewish year. And when the temple was destroyed, they built another one, so they could know where God was. But even the great Temple in Jerusalem could not satisfy them; and, when our Lord went into the temple to pray, He could sense the hunger of the people for God. Why?
God is pure spirit, but we are not. We are physical creatures, and we relate to the universe around us in a physical way. I know this pulpit is here. Why? Because I see it, I can touch it, I can read from it. I know it is here because I experience it with my senses. How do I know that God is here? Can I see Him? Can I touch Him?
All of these places where God is said to have dwelt—the Law, the Ark, the Tabernacle, the Temple—all of them were defective. You see, all of these different places were made by men. Nothing made by man could ever contain the infinite God. The only place where God could really dwell would have to be a place built by God, Himself. And that's exactly what He did when he took upon Himself the flesh of the Virgin Mary, and became Man. And for the first time in the history of God's people, God had a place to dwell that was truly worthy of Him, a place so perfect that it was, in fact, God Himself, in the person of Jesus. “And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father's only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.” God knows us so very well. He knows that we are physical beings, that we can't just relate to Him purely on a spiritual level; that we need a God whom we can see and touch and feel. That's why he gave us Jesus; and that's why Jesus, before leaving this world, gave us His greatest gift: He gave us Himself, under the humble appearances of bread and wine, so that we, too, could know where God is.
I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world (John 6: 51-52 Knox).
St. John begins his account of the Last Supper with these words: "Jesus, having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end." That's what the Eucharist is all about: love. Not the kind of love that you or I know. When we speak of love we so often mean possession, satisfaction, fulfillment. For us, love so often becomes an obsession in which we try to own another person, to make that person ours. For our Lord it's just the opposite. For Him, to love another means not to possess but to be possessed. We so often characterize love as a hunger for another person. But at the Last Supper our Lord shows us the true character of love; and, by the act of washing His disciples’ feet, He reminds us that our destiny is to love one another as He has loved us. And He has loved us not with a hunger that seeks to consume, but which seeks to be consumed, giving His own Flesh and Blood as food and drink. I wonder how many of us actually believe that. How many of us actually believe that the small piece of bread given to us in Holy Communion is not bread at all, but the Lord? Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of Jesus, Jesus is not present in the bread; but it actually is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is God. Think about that for a moment: God created the universe and everything in it, and He created you; and you can see him and receive him right here in this chapel, and wherever the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered! And there's absolutely no reason for it, except that He loves you.
There's a good deal of the ancient Israelites in all of us, because there are a lot of people running around with empty hearts. And they try, so futilely, to fill the emptiness with created things, all the while missing the fact that the only thing that can fill their hearts is in front of them always in the sacrifice of the Altar. That's where the priest, standing in the person of Christ, unites his own flesh and blood to that of his Divine Master, and offers both as an expiation for sin, his own sin as well as his people’s. That's where the Creator places Himself in the hands of the creature as a proof of His love, as if His love needed any proof.
The love that requires proof now is our own. And our Lord has shown us how, as He commanded us at the last supper: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13: 15 NABRE).
* In the Byzantine Tradition, major feast days are marked by prefestive and postfestive periods. While there is no corresponding tradition in the West regarding prefestive days, the postfestive period is concomitant with the concept of an octave in the Latin Church, though it's duration is not necessarily eight days depending on the importance of the feast. The last day of the postfestive period is called the "Leave-Taking," Otdanije in Slavonic, actually a verb meaning "to return." The liturgy on the day of Otdanije mirrors that of the feast with minor variations.
** In response to an inquiry: when quoting from the New Testament in Greek, I am referencing the Third Edition of The Greek New Testament, edited by Kurt Aland et al, published in 1966 by the United Bible Societies, being a revision of the 26th edition of Eberhard Nestle's Novum Testamentum Græce; it does not contain an English translation. This 1966 edition is now considered the standard text of the New Testament in Greek, though the Nestle text continues to have its place principally in interlinear editions, to wit, The RSV Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, published in 1958, which is the only readily available version of an interlinear New Testament remaining in print, and which utilizes the 21st edition of Nestle's text.
It is important to note that there are no certifiably “original” manuscripts for any books of the New Testament, either in Hebrew or Greek; and, even among the most ancient of the hundreds of manuscripts in the Vatican Archives, there is an alarming number of textual variations between them. This means that, when your Bible's title page tells you that it's a translation of “The Hebrew and Greek Originals,” it's a bold-faced lie, as no such things are extent. In pursuing their revision, Aland and his team made use of hundreds of other editions, commentaries, hitherto unused papyri, uncials (script written entirely in capital letters commonly used from the 4th to 8th centuries by Latin and Greek scribes), minuscules (a form of Roman cursive used from the 3rd to 7th centuries) and lectionaries of various Eastern and Western Churches. Between the 26th edition of the Nestle text and the 1966 text by Aland, over 600 variations in text and punctuation were taken into account. This 1966 text, from which I was taught Greek in the seminary, was the first edition of the New Testament in Greek to make use of ancient liturgical texts in determining the most “original” meaning of certain passages. The footnotes, in which Aland and his team identify the various manuscripts from which the text of each verse is taken, make up nearly half of every page. Click here to view the opening verses of today's Gospel lesson in Aland's text.
Even so, since the meanings of so many Greek words are variable depending on culture and context,—which explains why some passages differ so dramatically from one English translation to another—it is important to take into account all the different ways some words are used, by whom and in what circumstance; thus, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament by Rev. Max Zerwick, SJ, and Miss Mary Grosvenor, published in 1981 by the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, is an essential tool. Click here to view their analysis of the opening verses of today's Gospel lesson.
When quoting the Old Testament in Greek, I'm using the Septuagint (cf. the homily for 12/19/2015).
And for those who regard this kind of thing as pure "showing off" and unnecessary for the worshiper in the pew, Father Zerwick has included a quote from Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus on the back of his title page: "If I had been a priest I should have made a thorough study of Hebrew and Greek so as to understand the thought of God as He has vouchsafed to express it in our human language."