Twenty-four verses of First John? Really? Sure enough, this citation is given in the Rite of Penance, number 170. In the Lectionary, this passage is spread in the daily Lectionary from today to the Monday after Epiphany.
If you want a look at 1 John 3:1-2, I recommend the funeral Lectionary post from last year.
The theme of hate in verses 14-16 is picked up in another funeral Lectionary passage, blogpost here.
Verses 18 through 24 of this passage also appear in the wedding Lectionary.
Rather than expound on the whole piece, and possibly repeat myself from one of those other posts, I thought I’d take a look at a set of verses at the end of today’s first reading:
Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness,
for sin is lawlessness.
You know that he was revealed to take away sins,
and in him there is no sin.
No one who remains in him sins;
no one who sins has seen him or known him. (1 John 3:4-6)
This seems pretty straightforward. But avoiding sin is a bit harder than making a human, willful choice to be good. What can we do? We attend to the revelation of Christ in our lives. We throw ourselves on his mercy. We do our best, counting on God to fill the gap between what we know we should do, and the sins we commit despite our intentions.
Verse 5 seems especially appropriate in the Christmas season as we approach Epiphany.
(Christ) was revealed to take away sins.
The Jesuit Peter van Breemen discussed this in his book The God Who Won’t Let Go.
Authentic contrition grows in us when we focus on God rather than ourselves. There can be an awareness of guilt that is too much taken up with self. That is not healthy and not what God desires. In scripture, the awareness of our sins is not meticulously detailed. It finds its source in the encounter with God.
Fr van Breemen suggests three examples. He recalls Peter’s confession (Luke 5:8) when confronted with the miraculous catch of fish. He cites Isaiah’s reaction to the vision of angels and glory in the Temple (Isaiah 6:5). He suggests the most appropriate place to encounter the Lord and come face to face with one’s own self-awareness is the cross.
The visit of the Magi is a long way from Calvary. But in this Christmas season, if our focus is not yet on the cross, perhaps the child in the manger is another opportunity. Jesus was revealed to Israel/shepherds (25 December) and to the gentiles/Magi (6 January). The reason why he was revealed is to take away sins, according to 1 John 3:5. Should we take this literally?
When we come before the image of the infant Jesus, do we take inspiration less from the cute, and more from the vulnerability? God’s choice to become vulnerable–does that not touch us? Christ’s moment of death and powerlessness–that certainly can bring us to our knees. But what of the moment of the Nativity?
Whatever image of Jesus remains with us, at whatever time of the year, perhaps we have a simple prayer to utter, “You were revealed to take away sins. My sins. My God, have mercy on me.”
And we can pray that any time of the year, can’t we?
Many commentators have mused about today’s liturgical observance. It’s the Octave (Eighth Day) of Christmas. It’s been observed as the Circumcision of the Lord, as a World Day of Peace, and now, as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Placing Mary in relationship to Christ makes sense in the season of the Nativity. And the Lectionary readings support this.
In the Roman Antiphonary, two refrains and three texts are given as options for Entrance. In my parish, as with most in North America, there are attachments to Christmas songs and carols. I found the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” suggestive of the second antiphon below, so I generally have programmed it for today’s feast.
But the Bible passages given for the antiphons are quite interesting, and deserving of good settings. I’m less impressed with the first option, a biblically unreferenced (composed) refrain, “Hail, Holy Mother, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever,” which is directed to be used with three verses of Psalm 45: 2, 11-12. This psalm is a song for a wedding of the King to a Gentile princess. I suppose one could ponder the marriage of Christ to his Church, but that seems out-of-place on a day like today. Or maybe the Annunciation. But there’s another feast for observing that.
A superior text for the feast is the following antiphon suggested by Isaiah 9: 1, 5 and Luke 1: 33:
Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us;
and he will be called Wondrous God,
Prince of peace, Father of future ages:
and his reign will be without end.
(Psalm 92: GR, p. 44; or Isaiah 9: 1-3, 5-6: GR, Praenotanda, no. 1)
The 93rd is one of the shorter pieces in the Psalter. It starts off with a bang, in praise of God as King:
The LORD is king, robed with majesty;
the LORD is robed, girded with might.
The world will surely stand in place,
never to be moved.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
you are from everlasting.
From there, the psalmist reminds us of God’s triumph over flooding and over the sea. Verse 5 concludes with a suggestion of the Law, as well as God’s mastery of time–which may be appropriate for the first day of a new year:
Your decrees are firmly established;
holiness belongs to your house, O LORD,
for all the length of days.
If I were using this option, I would probably trim verses 3 and 4 if I didn’t need them. That’s easily done if the entrance proper is set up with the people on the longish antiphon and a psalmist or choir on the verses. If I had the resources of a choir, verses 3 and 4 rendered by the choir might make a good contrast with a smaller group or single psalmist on verses 1, 2, and 5.
And option two? What was a Lectionary for Christmas Mass in the Night is now a canticle:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing;
They rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest,
as they exult when dividing the spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
The rod of their taskmaster,
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
(For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for fire.)
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
By judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
This is a more intriguing text. I’ve included verse 4 above so you can see the Antiphonary editors determined that we don’t want the images of army boots and bloodied cloaks ringing in the new year. Maybe they’re on to something.
I like the reprise of the Christmas Night reading here. This is more a lyrical text than a prophecy in prose, and deserves a brilliant musical setting, as has been done many times in the classics. I’m not aware of any metrical paraphrase of this whole text, however. If we had one, perhaps those insisting on using the proper text could bracket singing the hymn with two presentations of that antiphon.
When it comes to Christmas, I’m something of a liturgical scrooge. I don’t care much for composing for Christmas–not sure why. I don’t feel quite up to this text either, not at this point in my life. Maybe when I reach seventy–who knows? I would love to see this antiphon and Isaiah passage set to a dialogue piece for assembly and choir. But then again, who might be prepared to prepare it after a heavy season of anticipation and the Western climax of the Nativity?
Thoughts on the text or musical settings of it?