This year the last Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve; to accommodate this coincidence I chose to reflect on the scripture readings for the Vigil Mass of Christmas, which takes place late in the afternoon or early in the evening of Christmas Eve.
We first hear a proclamation from the prophecy of the Book of Isaiah, a prophet whose words are often read during Advent. In words filled with anticipation Isaiah indicates that the people of Israel were suffering, yet held great hope for the future. In fact, Isaiah says that their future exaltation will exceed their past greatness: “Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory; you shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.” The prophet assures the people of Israel: “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused’” (Isa 62:2, 4).
This promise of salvation from their enemies and glory in the sight of the nations is followed by an excerpt from Saint Paul’s preaching in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul was trying to share the Good News with some of his fellow Jews as he traveled through the region of Pisidia, which is part of modern-day Turkey. He drew a connection for them between King David—a figure we hear much of in the Advent season—and Jesus Christ: “‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.’ From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus” (Acts 13:22).
Paul tried to proclaim Christ to the Jews of Pisidia but received little response; this gave him the conviction that while never abandoning his fellow Jews (see Romans 11:25-29) he must turn his efforts toward the gentiles (see Acts 13:44-52). Paul spent the rest of his life pursuing his goal of evangelizing the gentiles and bringing to them the message that they too can share in the salvation promised to Israel by Isaiah and all the prophets of old. This message that the gentiles can experience the very same vindication and glorification that the Jewish people have been promised is also discovered in the beautiful reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which offers us Jesus’ genealogy.
There is a shorter form of this reading that is allowed to be read at mass but I hope you hear the entire passage, containing as it does the record of our Lord’s ancestry going back forty-two generations. These generations are defined by many names that remind us of the long journey of the people of Israel with the Lord; this is perhaps best seen in the very opening verse of the Gospel, where Jesus is directly related to the figures of David and Abraham, quintessential representatives of the Jewish people: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).
At the same time these many generations also contain some names that call to mind how the gentile nations had already been woven into God’s plan for the redemption of all his children: figures such as Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, and Uriah the Hittite show us that even in the days of the Old Testament God was working out the salvation of all who believed in him, Jew or Gentile alike.
As we celebrate the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem this Christmas, let our hearts rejoice that he whose name means “salvation” (see Matt 1:21) has indeed brought salvation for all his people, including us in his promise made through Isaiah: “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken’…but you shall be called ‘My Delight!’”
Edward Mazich, O.S.B.