Dec 24, 2017: 4th Sunday of Advent (B)

This Week

When placed side by side, the readings interpret each other, demonstrating our Advent theme:

God, to King David:  Your kingdom shall endure forever before me.
Paul:  The mystery kept secret for long ages has now been manifested.
The angel Gabriel, to Mary:  Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.

1st Reading –  2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’

“It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

This reading from the history of the royal court is pivotal in understanding the theology that surrounds David and the line of his descendants.  It consists of two sections: an account of David’s desire to construct a temple suitable for the God of Israel, and a description of the establishment of the Davidic dynasty.  Although these two episodes in the life of David were mutually independent, they are bound together here by means of a very clever turn of phrase.

When King David was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,

The narrative opens into a situation of good fortune and peace in Jerusalem.  David has amassed enough wealth to build a palace for himself, and he is longer threatened by enemies.

The author makes it very clear that the peace he enjoys has come from God (“the Lord had given him rest”) and not from any victory of his own.

he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”

Nathan is the senior religious adviser of David’s court and the religious leader of his time.

King David realizes that the progress he and his people have made politically and socially has not carried over to their religious life.  The ark of the covenant still dwells in a tent, as if it were the religious standard of a tribal god.

Nathan answered the king, “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”

As spokesperson of God, the prophet tells him to proceed with his plans, assuring him that God approves.

But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said: “Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: 

The Lord speaks to Nathan that night, expressing disapproval of the plan and offering another.

Should you build me a house to dwell in? It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you. 

Recounting the history of David’s rise to power, God points out that any success that David enjoyed came directly from God.  David did not really direct his own fate or the fate of his people, and he will not be in charge of it in the future.

And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance. Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old, since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel. I will give you rest from all your enemies. 

God will make David famous, God will give the people peace, and God does not need to be ensconced in a royal temple in order to accomplish this.

(Note that David did not go on to build the Temple; his son Solomon was chosen for that task.)

The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.

This is essentially a divine legitimization of the Davidic ruling line.

There is a play on ideas here rather than a play on words.  David sought to build a house (temple) for God, and God promised to establish a house (dynasty) for David.  Previously, kings had been directly chosen by God.  Both Saul and David were seized by the spirit and anointed by a prophet (1 Samuel 10:1, 6; 16:13), signs of divine approval.  Now, a divinely founded dynasty gave legitimacy to a ruling family.

I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

This legitimization is confirmed when the king is accorded the title “son of God,” a technical phrase that characterizes the unique and intimate relationship between God and the monarch.

Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.’”

The reading ends with a promise that the dynasty will endure forever before God.  This promise provided stability to the monarchy, hope for the future, and the root of the messianic expectation of the rule of David.

2nd Reading – Romans 16:25-27

Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Our second reading today is the final three verses of Saint Paul’s letter to the
Romans.  In these few verses of praise, Paul sums up the central theme of his own teaching, namely, that God’s new act of revelation in Christ will bring even the Gentiles to the commitment of faith.

This is a new and different approach to the Jewish Scriptures: the great mystery of God, gradually unveiled in the course of human history, is now fully understood in the light of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

Brothers and sisters: To him who can strengthen you, 

The passage itself is a doxology exalting God, who is the real source of revelation.

according to my gospel

Paul calls this “my gospel” not because the content is significantly different from that taught by the other Christian missionaries, but because the proclamation to the Gentile world was taken up by him and this new direction in his ministry was later confirmed by the leaders of the Jerusalem community (Galatians 2:7-9).

and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings

Paul claims that the revelation of God in Christ was really present in ages past, but as a mystery that was kept secret.  Belief that the destinies of the nations was decided at the very creation of the world is a very old idea.  These destinies were through to have been written down, sealed, and hidden, sometimes in the guise of cryptic imagery, to be revealed during a much later period.  Sometimes an individual was chosen to break the seal and reveal the destinies (Revelation 5-16), sometimes not.

Another tradition claimed that the revelation of God through Jesus Christ can be found obliquely in the writings of the Old Testament.  This revelation might have been hidden to the ancient Israelites, but those who have eyes of faith today should be able to read these writings and there discover something of God’s plan.

Paul insists that God had this plan in mind from the beginning, even though it was very difficult for anyone to comprehend it thoroughly.  This understanding of the hidden mysteries would explain the reference Paul makes here to the prophets.

“By saying this Paul is releasing the weak person from fear. For this secret was contained in the law. Indeed, it is what the law was all about. We cannot ask why it should be disclosed now, for to do this would be to call God to account. We ought not to behave like busybodies but instead be content with what we have been given.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 27]

and, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,

The purpose of the revelation of this mystery is universal salvation.  All, Gentiles included, are to be brought to the commitment of faith.  The faith referred to here is not an intellectual assent to propositions about Christ.  It is, instead, a commitment to the person of Christ, a commitment that comes through hearing the word.

to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Finally, as important as the proclamation of this word is, Paul insists that the real work of revelation and salvation is God’s.  Only to God, the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, does glory belong.

“Do not think that Paul said this in disparagement of the Son. For if all the things whereby His wisdom was made apparent were done by Christ and nothing was done without Him, it is quite plain that the Son is equal to the Father in wisdom also. The word ‘only’ is used in order to contrast God with every created being.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 27]

This short doxology sums up not only Paul’s teaching but the heart of the Christian message.  From ages past, God has planned the salvation of all and has revealed this message through the tradition of the past.  Now the fullness of this revelation has come in Jesus, and through Jesus the blessings of salvation promised long ago are given to all nations.

Such a message can elicit only unending gratitude and praise.

Gospel – Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Saint Luke was a Syrian of Antioch. He was neither an apostle nor an eyewitness of
Jesus’ earthly life. He wasn’t even a prominent figure in the apostolic Church, but a physician and a companion or collaborator of Saint Paul. Although Saint Luke is believed to have derived his gospel (and the Acts of the Apostles) from Saint Paul, it bears little
reflection of Saint Paul’s theology as reflected in his letters. This has led scholars to
theorize that Saint Luke’s association with Saint Paul was early, before Saint Paul’s
theology was fully developed, before Saint Paul engaged in serious letter writing, and
before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

Only two of the gospels contain what are known as the infancy narratives of Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is the annunciation to Mary from Saint Luke’s gospel, which is cast in a traditional pattern of angelic birth announcements (Genesis 16:7-16, Judges 13:2-7).  If it sounds familiar, we heard it a couple of weeks ago on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, 

Though this blessed event happened to a descendant of the great King David, it happened in an obscure town of about 150 people in Galilee.

and the virgin’s name was Mary.

Note that St. Luke twice stresses Mary’s virginity.

And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

The angelic greeting emphatically states Mary’s extraordinary dignity.  The common Greek salutation “hail!” carries the connotation “rejoice!”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Mary has the typical reaction to an angelic vision: fear.  As far as she is concerned, Mary has done nothing spectacular that would warrant a visit from an angel with this sort of greeting.  She is puzzled and afraid.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

The appearance of the angel would have been fear-inducing on its own, but Mary was also certainly aware of the high price that was sometimes extracted from those who had found favor with God.  Examples: Noah (Genesis 6:8), Moses (Exodus 33:12), Gideon (Judges 6:17), Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26).

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,

Note the future tense: “will conceive.”

The parallel with Isaiah 7:14 was certainly not lost on Mary. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…”

and you shall name him Jesus.

Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation” or “God saves.”

He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary’s future son is described with language ordinarily reserved for God’s redeeming presence among his people: “Son of the Most High” (Genesis 14:19ff; Sirach 24:2), “everlasting king” (Genesis 21:33; Daniel 12:7; Psalm 24:7, 10; 97:1).

This will fulfill the great covenant oath made to David that one of his line will rule forever and be God’s own Son (2 Samuel 7).  It also fulfills the covenant promise that Abraham’s name will be made great with a royal dynasty (Genesis 12:1-3, 17:6).

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

The angel told her she will conceive a son at an unspecified time in the future.  She is betrothed to Joseph, so this would not be shocking.  Why then, would she question how this event could happen?

Mary’s question makes sense if she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. The apocryphal Gospel of the Birth of Mary, tells us that she was brought up in the Temple as a consecrated virgin:

“When at length she arrived to her fourteenth year, as the wicked could not lay anything to her charge worthy of reproof, so all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her live and conversion. At that time the high priest made a public order. That all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home, and, as they were now of a proper maturity, should, according to the custom of their country, endeavor to be married. To which command, though all the other virgins readily yielded obedience, Mary the Virgin of the Lord alone answered that she could not comply with it. Assigning these reasons: that both she and her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord; and besides, that she had vowed virginity to the Lord, which vow she was resolved never to break through by lying with a man.” (Gospel of the Birth of Mary 5:3-6).

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

This calls to mind the cloud coming down and overshadowing Mount Sinai when God gave the commandments (Exodus 24:15) and the glory cloud which overshadowed and occupied the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10). Some commentators have seen this as a reference to Mary as the new ark of the covenant, which contained the Word of God (Jesus).

What Mary is being told is truly awesome: she is invited to be the vehicle of salvation for God’s people, a task that will surely demand great hardship.

And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 

As a reassurance about the possibility of all this, Mary is given a concrete sign.  Mary’s relative Elizabeth, a woman past childbearing age, has also conceived a son.

for nothing will be impossible for God.”

This echoes God’s words to Abraham, when he assures him of the future birth of his son Isaac (Genesis 18:14).

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Note that Mary interacts directly with God’s messenger, without the mediation of her father or intended husband.  She is not only free of patriarchal restraints, her words suggest that hers is a completely free response to God.  She is a model of openness and receptivity, regardless of the apparent impossibility or impending hardships of her task.

Connections and Themes

The season of Advent shifts direction by the fourth Sunday.  On the 17th of December, the great O antiphons of evening prayer have begun to characterize the Messiah in stunning metaphors.  A new Eucharistic preface is now proclaimed in which the birth of Jesus is announced.  It is as if we are already celebrating Christmas.

The Lectionary readings carry this changed focus.  The time of fulfillment is at hand, and several themes point to this: salvation occurs within history; the hidden mystery is revealed; God works the impossible.

Salvation occurs within history.  In a significant turn of meaning, the one who wanted to build an edifice for God is told that God will establish a house for him.  The house that God will build is a nation.  It will not be simply a political dynasty; it will be a people strong in the land, filled with a godly power.  This power will come from a covenant that transcends time but is present to history.  This covenant travels through time from the throne room of Mount Zion to a backwater Galilean village in the hills.

What is announced to Mary in today’s Gospel is the revelation of all that the prophets had spoken. It is, as Paul declares in today’s Epistle, the mystery kept secret since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-9).

Mary is the virgin prophesied to bear a son of the house of David (Isaiah 7:13-14). Nearly every word the angel speaks to her today evokes and echoes the long history of salvation recorded in the Bible.

The world in which we live and the events of which we are a part are the stage upon which the drama of salvation is enacted.  God works through real flesh-and-blood people, those who occupy the seats of power and influence as well as those who are unseen and unknown.  All carry the promise of salvation in the present and into the future.  Such an ennobling vocation!  God’s future is in our hands.  Human history is really the history of salvation.

The hidden mystery is revealed.  For the believer, mystery is not mystery because its value cannot be comprehended.  Rather, it is mystery because its infinite value and meaning will always extend beyond human comprehension.  Increased knowing leads to knowing how much more we do not know of the mystery.  We know only in the depth of not knowing.  Each turn of God’s revealing causes us to wonder at what comes next.

In this tension, mystery is revealed.  What was hidden is now made known.  Jesus, God’s salvation in history, establishes a people of covenant promise.  Jesus has been made known, Paul tells us in the second reading, to bring all nations to the obedience of faith.

God works the impossible.  The waiting of Advent is over.  God does the impossible.  Mary is asked to believe this.  She is open and accepting.  She is to believe something else equally impossible: the old and barren Elizabeth is pregnant, for nothing is impossible with God.

What we have been waiting for all Advent is now revealed.  We have been waiting for the realization of the promise God made to David.  We have been waiting for Mary’s yes.

According to the ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary’s yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait; the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we.  With Mary’s yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed.  There is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God.  All nations assemble in justice, compassion, and gratitude.  Salvation is created among us, and the fate of history is altered by a godly presence.  This salvation resides in the hearts of those who believe in the gift and who stay awake eagerly to know its coming.  With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, with Mary we behold it.

We are called with Mary today, to marvel at all that the Lord has done throughout the ages for our salvation. We too, must respond to this annunciation with humble obedience — that his will be done, that our lives be lived according to his word.

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