Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
The Nativity of Our Lord
December 25, 2022
Christmas provides four Masses with many choices of readings. Most communities choose the readings for Midnight Mass for all the Masses to hear the story of the birth of Jesus in Luke. This is time honored and eagerly awaited but means that we do not hear this section from the “Letter to Titus,” which is read as the Second Reading during the Mass at Dawn. It is always powerful and particularly relevant this year.
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. 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. This follows Paul’s practice as well. Paul always connected doctrine to practice, and we will see the author of this letter make several very pertinent connections for us as well.
The verse immediately before where we begin today says:
For we ourselves were once foolish,
disobedient, deluded, slaves to various desires and pleasures,
living in malice and envy,
hateful ourselves and hating one another.
This is not primarily autobiographical but a statement of our universal situation. The human tendency is to behave badly and there must be an intervention in order to change. Disciples of Paul knew what this power is:
But when the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
In Christ the power of God entered into history, the “savior appeared” to show “kindness” (chrēstotē) and “generous love” (Philanthrōpia). These words are carefully chosen. Kindness would have been understood by everyone in the Roman Empire as the attitude a good ruler shows to his subjects. But non-rulers can also show it as this passage from the Acts of the Apostles will reveal:
On the following day we put in at Sidon
where Julius was kind enough to allow Paul
to visit his friends who took care of him.
Generally, “generous love” means love of humankind but is most often used for extraordinary hospitality, putting oneself out for others. Again, to look at the Acts of the Apostles:
The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality;
they lit a fire and welcomed all of us
because it had begun to rain and was cold.
The eternal and powerful God breaks into history but not as an overlord or conqueror to take from us but as a kind and benevolent ruler who knows and seeks to provide for us.
This is not because of anything we are or have done but from his mercy. The Hebrew for mercy is raḥămîm. It is the kind of love a mother has for her children and comes from the same root as womb (reḥem). It is love that is freely given and cannot be earned. This is the love that God has for us.
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness (racham) for the child of her womb?
The author may be addressing many who were not born Jews, but he recognizes that, in our terms, Paul’s and indeed Jesus’ anthropology is Jewish. There must be a physical sign.
He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior,
In this case the sign is Baptism. Paul is reluctant to use the word we translate as “rebirth” or “rejuvenation” (palingenesia). He prefers to say “adoption” as in
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery
to fall back into fear,
but you received a spirit of adoption,
through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”
Paul does not want to say anything that would indicate that we share in divine by nature. We are however connected to him by accepting his invitation in Baptism. This also is not by our merit or action but by the Holy Spirit. This is “poured out on us” a phrase which would have great meaning to the authors readers:
Then afterward I will pour out
my spirit upon all mankind.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions;
The spirit is accepted only when the person changes, but that change does not lead to or merit salvation but flows from it and proves that God is working in the person and community. The author is very clear also that it comes from Jesus the Messiah who is our savior.
This has its practical effects:
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Justification as we seen many times means being righteous, that is having a relationship with God. For Paul that can only occur because of the action of God.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
We can thus hope for a life with God. This was present at the very beginning of the Jewish people. It was first connected with land.
He then said to him,
“I am the LORD
who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans
to give you this land as a possession.”
Although this never ceased, the later Jewish writers realized that God had more in store for them than even a land flowing with milk and honey
By the second century BC the author of the book of Daniel wrote
Go, take your rest,
you shall rise for your reward
at the end of days.”
This begins real interest in what Jesus will call the kingdom of God. This line of thought we can see clearly earlier in Titus (in a reading also read at a Christmas Mass)
As we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory
of the great God
and of our savior Jesus Christ,
This hope is not mere expectation but, as in any writing which claims to be Pauline must express itself here and now. This is clearly the case with the Letter to Titus, the first verse of this chapter is:
Remind them to be under the control
of magistrates and authorities,
to be obedient,
to be open to every good enterprise
The spirit may free a person from sin, but this does not mean that Christians are freed from social responsibilities and participating in civil society. To have an effect Christians must work within the social structures that actually exist. They have never been or ever will be completely satisfying, but Christians must seek to support what is necessary and change whatever is possible. This requires being “open to every good enterprise.” Much of this is simple good manners and a commitment to citizenship.
They are to slander no one,
to be peaceable, considerate, exercising
all graciousness toward everyone
Words that are eternally wise and true. We have been told today that we have been reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit. This should be seen in our actions as citizens as well as kin, friends, and neighbors. It is a great danger to expect that if everyone was reborn and renewed, they would, of course, all think the same, and like us. This is not the case. The Church gives us in her social teaching principles not instructions and there will be many ways to put them into effect. The Spirit will give many dreams, visions and prophecies and they will need to be enacted in a spirit of cooperation and with consideration and graciousness.