December 11, 2012
Associate Professor, Music
Psalm 96:1-2, 3 and 10ac, 11-12, 13
The richness of today's readings is nearly overwhelming, effectively bringing together the images of God as Messiah (the God who saves) and Shepherd (the God who gathers). In the first reading, Isaiah presents us with a passage so full of imagery that composers from many eras have been inspired to set these ideas to music. In his 1742 oratorio Messiah, the German composer Georg Frideric Handel crafts an aria that heralds, “Ev'ry valley shall be exalted.” In this remarkable piece, Handel devotes more than 40 notes to the word "exalted," so moved is he by the prospect of a path that leads directly from God to us. Some 230 years later, the Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz draws upon this same reading to open the musical play Godspell with “Prepare ye (the way of the Lord).” The passage ends with the image of God as a shepherd who cares for his flock—for many of us, a powerful image that many associate with the Advent and Christmas seasons, and one that returns in today’s gospel.
Advent and Christmas come together in the responsorial psalm as well. Psalm 96 is also heard in the Mass during the Night on Christmas. The time of waiting for the Messiah here merges with the time of Emmanuel—“God with Us.” We wait in prayer for the coming of a salvation that is already here, already given to us. What better reason to take comfort, as Isaiah exhorts?
We are further comforted by the message of the Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep. When I am the one who is lost, the one who has gone astray, I take heart in the knowledge that I will be found. I am lost only from my own limited perspective, not from God’s. It is interesting that the sheep are referred to as the “little ones” in this parable. The Franciscan concept of minores—literally, the “little ones”—is here illustrated. Our obligation to care for those who may not be able to care for themselves is rooted in this image of God as shepherd.