Adoration of the Child, Gerrit Van Honthorst,
c. 1619–1620, Uffizi Gallery (Florence)
(About this Image)
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
(Luke 2:8–12 )
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
December 25, 2021
The second reading for Christmas midnight Mass, which we will celebrate here at 5 PM on Christmas Eve, is from the letter to Titus (2:11–14). This is one of the pastoral letters written in the name of St. Paul but most likely composed years after his death by a disciple. They reflect the situation of the church which the apostles left behind. The first generation of witnesses had died and the leaders who were left needed to establish not only how they would govern, but why they could govern. This did not arise abstractly but in concrete situations. These letters addressed them and are thus “pastoral” in that the new leaders prove their worth by the wisdom of their responses. Their use of Paul’s name would not have been seen as dishonest: everyone knew he was dead. They allowed the readers to look at what Paul had said and done in other situations and see if what his successors wrote “fits.” Titus’ letter fits very well not in the original situation but also for our Christmas.
Titus was a disciple of St. Paul who is spoken of in the letter to the Galatians. He is trusted by Paul and is sent on several diplomatic missions. He is identified with the island of Crete and is considered its first bishop. This letter is most likely written to him to be shared with the church in Crete. Parts of the letter involve the authority of the Bishop and the need for what we have come to call hierarchy. These letters show the development of the “institutional” Church and ultimately the Papacy. These sections are very controversial in Catholic/Protestant dialogue, but is not the area that we will examine today.
What wisdom can this generation provide?
These are pastoral reflections, not dogmatic statements and so are very practical.
Crete did not have a good reputation in the ancient world. The inhabitants were thought to be dishonest and particularly immoral. Indeed, we ourselves refer to someone who is less than honorable as a “Cretan.”
It is unlikely that they were more immoral than anyone else, but it was likely that the author of Titus would have felt obligated to make moral statements in any situation.
Morality is often a matter of habit or fear of not being caught. This was especially true in the ancient world whose official religions were unable to connect belief to living a good life. One of the attractions of Judaism in the ancient world was that it had a clear, firm, and God centered morality. Indeed, were it not for circumcision, it might have achieved substantial spiritual influence in the Roman empire. As it were, there were many who would not be circumcised but accepted the God of Israel and were called “God fearers”. The major alternative was from the philosophy of stoicism which, if not as transcendent, nonetheless put how to live in a wider philosophical perspective. When we read the first letter of Peter, we saw that he was very aware of stoicism and saw it as a worthy competitor. When Titus speaks of “self-control” and “training,” he is also showing his appreciation of stoic values.
Like the Jews and the Stoics, the Christians found that they had to become very basic with morality with their converts. Remember Paul in Corinthians had to tell them that incest was bad.
The sections before the one we read today deal with extremely basic moral ideas. To take one example:
that older men should be temperate, dignified,
self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance.
Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior,
not slanderers, not addicted to drink,
teaching what is good,
This may seem like common sense but the states it for two reasons.
The first and most obvious is that they may need to be told this. That the converts are present shows a degree of goodwill but possibly little if any formation. The other is he is concerned not only with what to do but why.
Paul instructs Titus:
As for yourself, you must say
what is consistent with sound doctrine,
Doctrine here is not so much the knowledge of church teaching as the knowledge and experience of Jesus.
We read today:
For the grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
God has revealed himself to all of humanity. It is a grace: something which is good, but also freely given. We neither deserve it nor could we understand it without God’s help. Training was an important word for both Jews and Gentiles. For Jews it meant leaning the law; for Gentiles accepting hard moral discipline. The author assumes that we will take it on not as information but as a way of life. This is true conversion, turning away from our former way of life to embrace Jesus. The fruit of this will be to live temperately, with human dignity and respect that was very important to those who might have been attracted to Stoicism, Justly, with fairness to all, the very hallmark of Jewish morality and devoutly, with proper respect to worship.
As we have seen in the Gospels by living this way of life “we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ.” (Tt 2:13)
Even though we employ this reading for Christmas, nonetheless we must always be aware that the Lord is returning to establish the kingdom. Even as we live lives of temperance, justice, and devotion, the author, as a disciple of Paul, very clearly reminds us that we live this life because of the power of Jesus which was given to us by his death and resurrection:
…who gave himself for us to deliver us
from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself
a people as his own, eager to do what is good
If we have experienced Jesus at any time and in any way, we will not only change our lives, but will be eager to follow this way so we can show Jesus our understanding of what he has done for us and gratitude for it. The Christian who knows Jesus not only does what is good he is “eager” to do it. Note as well that it is assumed, again we see the hand of St. Paul, that this is not done alone but with and in a community. A follower of St. Paul must always remind the individual Christian that he or she is a member of a Body.
I have noted before that the prayers in the Mass for this time of year are very ancient and very powerful. The prayer after communion for today reads:
Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God,
that we, who are gladdened by participation
in the feast of our Redeemer’s Nativity,
may through an honorable way of life
become worthy of union with him.
This is the perfect Christmas prayer and the letter to Titus is its perfect interpretation and challenge. Jesus has made a commitment to us; what commitment are we willing to make to him?