First Reading Numbers 6:22–27
Psalm Psalm 67:2–8
Second Reading Galatians 4:4–7
Gospel Luke 2:16–21
Gospel – Luke 2:16–21
The shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Hearing the Word
The New Year’s Day liturgy closes the Christmas octave with the celebration of the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. This feast celebrates the great dignity and importance of the human mother of Jesus – the woman whose willing acceptance of God’s will, and unreserved response to God’s grace, made the birth of the divine child in human flesh possible. Mary’s unequalled role in bringing Jesus into the world was recognized by the council of Ephesus (AD 431) where Jesus’ mother was declared theotokos, which, in Greek, means “the Mother of God”. Since 1967, the Church also celebrates New Year’s Day as the World Day of Peace. Today’s two feasts, even though they bear different names, celebrate the peace offered to the world through the transformative presence of God in Jesus, whom Mary brought into this world.
The first reading contains the priestly blessing of the Israelite congregation. This blessing concludes a long section of the book of Numbers which contains a wide variety of laws and instructions on how to maintain ritual purity in the Israelite camp. These instructions were intended to ensure the harmony and peace within the community journeying through the desert, and to maintain the Israelites’ communion with their God. Only pure people can draw near and live in harmony with the one holy and pure God. That peace and harmony with God and one another was necessary to survive in the hostile desert environment.
At the conclusion of the collection of those rules and instruction, God bestows his blessing on the people, confirming that by adhering to them purity and holiness can be achieved. The blessing imparted by “Aaron and his sons” also bestowed God’s grace on the Israelites. These Israelite priests were instructed to “put my (God’s) name on the Israelites, and I will bless them”.
The blessing consists of three lines, each containing two words: the first represents God’s action, while the second indicates its outcome. The first line speaks of blessing manifested in God’s protection of his people from harm and destruction – God will “keep them”. The second line speaks of God’s continuing presence – his face will “shine on them” ensuring wellbeing and grace, God will be “gracious to them”. However, the most significant action of God consists in giving his people peace, as stated in the final line of the blessing. Peace – shalom in the Hebrew language – implies a whole range of positive and life-sustaining aspects of human existence. Peace means health, security, wellbeing, prosperity, and long life; shalom implies a thriving life. By concluding a set of instructions with the blessing of peace, the author of the book of Numbers teaches that the life-giving state of peace is reached by adhering to God’s ways. God’s laws and instructions can lead the people to the state of harmonious and peaceful existence, even amid such precarious circumstances as a long trek through the hostile desert.
The second reading also contains the conclusion of an important part of a biblical book. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul closes his important exposition on righteousness by faith, with the words, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” into the world. This son, Jesus, was “born of a woman, born under the law”, which highlights that Jesus was truly a human being and an Israelite. As God and a human being at once, Jesus brought the divine gift of redemption into the human world. For Paul, redemption meant freeing people from slavery to sin and death, which Jesus accomplished on the cross. The resulting freedom from these destructive and alienating powers led to the adoption of believers as God’s children. What Jesus did, embracing the cross, led to the transformation of fallen and enslaved humanity into a new family of God’s children, because, in the words of Paul, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal 3:26). The new status of “adopted children” brings along what the blessing of Aaron and his sons meant to secure, namely peace with God, peace with fellow human beings, and the fullness of life. The presence of the Holy Spirit in believers’ hearts provides a proof and a manifestation of God’s blessing at work. Thus, Jesus’ coming, and his sacrifice on the cross, transformed deeply divided and sinful humanity into God’s family – a community existing in peace and harmony with its God.
The Gospel passage narrates the shepherds’ visit to Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. These shepherds arrive “with haste”, which echoes Mary’s haste when she went to visit Elisabeth to share the joy of being chosen as God’s mother (see Luke 1:39). Like Mary, the shepherds rushed to share the joy of the saviour’s birth which was announced to them by an angel (see Luke 2:10-12).
The key to the message of this story lies in the fact that, in the world of Jesus’ day, the shepherds were among the least respectable of society’s members. They were widely held in disrespect as rootless drifters and untrustworthy beggars. The word of a shepherd held little or no value in the hearing of their fellow Israelites. Nevertheless, the shepherds in today’s story arrived at the manger and faithfully “made known what had been told to them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherd told them”. The shepherds’ conscientious and reliable report shows that this rugged band of wanderers became a group of credible witnesses. Luke reports that the same shepherds went away “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”. The encounter with the angels and, subsequently, with Jesus, changed these lowly herders into witnesses and proclaimers of divine grace.
The message which the shepherds heard from the angels included the proclamation of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). Carrying this message, these poor and rootles men became the first evangelizers who declared to the world that the long-awaited God’s savior had arrived, bringing much-needed peace to earth. These shepherds were among the first who experienced the transforming power of Jesus’ coming and became the messengers of his peace.
The readings of the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, and the World Day of Peace, focus on God’s transforming power working through Jesus in bringing peace to the human community. Aaron and his sons were commanded to bless the people in recognition that living according to God’s instructions would bring peace to the community. Paul taught that Jesus fully manifested God’s transforming power by his redemptive death on the cross, which opened the possibility for the divided and enslaved humanity to become God’s family. The transformative power of Jesus’ presence changed the wandering shepherds into joyful proclaimers of the good news. At the beginning of the New Year, the prayer of the Psalmist, “May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him”, is truly a fitting one for those who seek to experience that divine peace, as well as the honour of being the channels of God’s blessing and peace into this world.
Listening to the Word of God
The readings of today bring into focus the transforming power of blessing and the fundamental importance of peace. The power of blessings is well recognized in human communities, where parents or guardians often bless their children. Even more so, in religious communities and Churches, blessing is one of the most frequent acts performed. Such blessings demonstrate the power and will of almighty God for his people, the power that works for the betterment of the lives of his faithful. We receive many such blessings throughout the year. However, the question arises on this first day of the year, whether these blessing mean that we are not going to encounter difficulties or problems in the months ahead? Is this blessing going to magically make our lives all smooth sailing?
The answer to the above question is a resounding “no”; we are going to encounter difficulties and problems. However, the great gift that we have is that through the light of faith we can rise above these difficulties and confront them successfully. The blessing that is imparted to us today will help us to do just that. It will transform our lives so that we shall come to see all things in life with the eyes of faith. We will see each event that happens or will happen as a part of God’s plan for us. Such a view which comes with the blessing can bring us peace even as we walk through the deserts of our life, and our daily, often repetitious and mundane, existence.
Our daily experiences are always a mixture of joy and happiness tainted by frustration and pain. However, in this mixed bag of life we are called to discover that peace which comes from the sense of belonging to the gracious God, whom we call our Father. Faith and hope bring us peace that ought to be shared. The role of Christians is to become like Mary – to bring Jesus and his transformative power into the world through the faith and lifestyle, which Jesus taught. In doing this they, like the shepherds, can become the bearers of the good news of God’s peace which transforms the world.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that we do not need to look for extraordinary events of life to nourish and support our faith and be the instruments of God’s peace. The shepherds only saw a small helpless child, but they recognised the saviour of the world in him. A true follower of Christ is the one who looks at Jesus and is moved to action. Mary, our mother, heard the word of God and treasured it in her heart. She had the capacity to see the transforming power of God working in her ordinary life. From her we can learn not to be easily upset by the daily disappointments and the challenges of life, but to be ambassadors of peace. By doing so, we too become the much-needed agents of peace, and agents of God’s transforming power for our world.
Am I the source of light, peace and blessing for my family and peers? What personal transformation do I need to be such a source?
How do I transform my immediate environment? Is my presence peace-bringing or divisive? Why so?
Response to God
During these first days of the New Year I will reflect and pray with gratitude for all the blessings and gifts I have been given. I will seek to understand how to employ them to carry God’s light and blessings to others.
Response to your World
I will determine one course of action which can transform me into a channel of peace, even in a small mater. I will pursue it consistently and employ lessons learned through this first month of the year.
In our prayer meeting, our group will focus on the matters of its internal harmony and peace. What can we do to make us the kind of community that would merit the designation a “harmonious group”?
Lord our God, on the threshold of this New Year, we thank you for giving us Jesus as our saviour and the prince of peace. May his presence in our lives increase our faith in you and bring us lasting peace, so that filled with every blessing and peace we may become true ambassadors of peace everywhere we go. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.