Along our Advent journey, the Church has prepared us for Christmas by setting out the larger context of salvation history in which the incarnational aspect of the mystery of Christ can best be celebrated and interpreted. As we remember Christ’s first incarnation, our minds and hearts are directed to await his Second Coming at the end of time.
Advent sketches the full dimensions of the mystery of Christ and of the salvation he brings, from the Old Testament prophecies to the fullness of the kingdom, thus establishing the context in which we can understand and live out our lives. It is a season that paradoxically exhorts to patience and sobriety all the while stocking the desire for the glorious consummation of all things. In the name of all creation, Christians repeat the ancient prayer of holy impatience, “Maranatha! Our Lord, Come!”
1st Reading – Micah 5:1-4a
Thus says the LORD:
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.
Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne,
and the rest of his kindred shall return
to the children of Israel.
He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the LORD,
in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
and they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth;
he shall be peace.
The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age.
Micah is the last of the four prophets of the 8th century BC. (The other three are Isaiah, Hosea and Jonah). The name means “who is like God” and the English equivalent is “Michael.” Micah’s preaching is primarily concerned with sin and punishment, not with political or cultic matters. He is preoccupied with social justice.
Today’s reading is a prophecy of hope, an affirmation of a secure future grounded in the goodness of God.
Thus says the LORD:
The common prophetic introduction, announcing that the startling message that follows is not from the prophet himself, but from God.
There were actually two towns called Bethlehem, so the prophet designates which one he is referencing. One was in Galilee in the land of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15); the other was associated with Ephrathah, a clan related to Caleb and located in Judah.
Bethlehem-Ephrathah was the city of Jesse and of his son, David, who was chosen to be king of the twelve tribes of Israel.
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
Bethlehem (whose name means “house of bread”) in Ephrathah (“field of fruit”) was an insignificant village. Even so, it represented fruitfulness and produced the most prominent king that Israel ever knew.
From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.
Another Davidic ruler will emerge from Bethlehem. This is not to be understood as the successive Davidic king, but as a new Davidic king, fresh and totally committed to God as the young David had been.
Note that he will be called forth “for me,” that is, “for God” — not for the people. He originated “from old,” from the formation of the world.
Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his brethren shall return to the children of Israel.
A time of tribulation will precede the emergence of this new ruler. Micah tells us that the Lord will “give up” some people, presumably to suffering. He then assures us that the kindred who have been separated will return, which suggests that their suffering will include some kind of exile or displacement.
The arrival of this ruler is depicted as a woman giving birth, which reflects the struggle involved in bringing forth a new messianic age of fulfillment. The painful agony of labor and delivery is blotted out by the joy of new life; accordingly, our glory with God will blot out the suffering we must endure.
He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
The familiar image used to depict the rule of this new ruler is that of a shepherd, which was also David’s occupation before he was made king. He leads, protects, and provides for those in his care; all on behalf of, and in the name of, God.
And they shall remain,
The people will be secure, no longer threatened with banishment.
for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth;
The messiah’s reign will be universal, reaching the ends of the earth.
he shall be peace.
He will not bring shālôm, he will be shālôm.
2nd Reading – Hebrews 10:5-10
Brothers and sisters:
When Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”
First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings,
holocausts and sin offerings,
you neither desired nor delighted in.”
These are offered according to the law.
Then he says, “Behold, I come to do your will.”
He takes away the first to establish the second.
By this “will,” we have been consecrated
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In today’s second reading, Saint Paul contrasts the sacrifice of Christ with sacrificial ritual that was formerly observed. He writes in the form of a homiletic midrash, which is a type of interpretation that cites and then comments upon a passage from Scripture, filling in gaps that the text perhaps only hints at.
Brothers and sisters: When Christ came into the world, he said:
Throughout this reading, Paul places various statements in the mouth of Christ. Here, he tells us that Christ proclaimed these statements upon his entrance into the world, suggesting that what is said provides the very reason for his incarnation.
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
A commentary on Psalm 40:6-8 (Psalm 40:7-9 in the New American Bible).
Four different sacrifices are explicitly mentioned: animal sacrifice (thysía), meal offering (prosperá), burnt offering (holokaútoma), and sin offering (perì hamartía). Together, they represent the entire sacrificial system.
In the psalm, sacrifices are contrasted with an attitude of obedience toward God, teaching that interior obedience is preferred over a mere external ritual. Here, the contrast is between those sacrifices and the sacrifice of the body of Christ. As God incarnate, Christ’s body constitutes the perfect sacrifice.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”
Christ’s compliance with the will of God is clearly stated. Both the internal sacrifice (Jesus giving over his personal will to God’s will by way of obedience) and the external ritual (the eternal sacrifice of Christ by his death on the cross) have been accomplished.
First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in.” These are offered according to the law.
Paul now begins a commentary on the christological reading of the psalm.
Then he says, “Behold, I come to do your will.” He takes away the first to establish the second.
Christ annuls “the first,” that is, external adherence to God’s will via cultic sacrifice, in order to “establish the second,” that is, internal obedience to God’s will.
By this “will,” we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ
By freely offering his body in sacrifice, Christ identifies his own will with the will of God.
We are sanctified through this same sacrifice, not through any sacrifice required by law. In the new covenant, instead of requiring cultic sacrifices, we are called to present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).
In the Mass, we make present here on earth Christ’s perfect and eternal sacrifice, and we join with it the offering of ourselves, which we explicitly state in the opening of the Eucharistic prayer. In response to the priests command to “Lift up your hearts,” we reply, “We lift them up to the Lord!”
once for all.
A restatement of the preeminence of Christ’s sacrifice of his body.
The former sacrificial system required a variety of offerings to be repeated time and again, indicating the inadequacy of any single sacrifice. In contrast, Christ offered himself one time, and it was enough.
Gospel – Luke 1:39-45
Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”
Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the gospel reading relates the events that prepared immediately for the Lord’s birth. This year, we focus on the well-known account commonly referred to as “The Visitation.”
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah,
At the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38, immediately preceding this passage), Mary learned that her kinswoman Elizabeth is miraculously expecting a child in her old age, “for with God nothing will be impossible.“ Now Mary fervently desires to share in Elizabeth’s joy and serve her during the last part of the pregnancy: she goes “with haste” to visit her.
The only geographic detail provided is “the hill country of Judah.” The setting itself is insignificant; the focus of the passage is on Elizabeth’s faith-filled avowal.
where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
The Greek verb used for “greeted” (aspázomai) indicates that Mary’s greeting was a customary salutation, but its effect was profound.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,
The verb used here, skirtáō, indicates that the infant’s leap was a leap for joy, a detail that Elizabeth will confirm later in the passage.
Recall that in Genesis 25:22, Esau and Jacob wrestled in Rebekah’s womb, a foreshadowing of their future relationship. A similar foreshadowing of John’s relationship to Jesus as his precursor is likely intended here.
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
Being filled with the Holy Spirit means that Elizabeth has been given prophetic insight. We will see that, in addition to knowing Mary is pregnant, Elizabeth also knows she is carrying not any ordinary child but the holy Son of God.
cried out in a loud voice
The particular word Luke uses for “exclaimed” is used almost every time in the Greek Old Testament to portray the Levites exclaiming and praising God before the ark of the covenant. It seems that Luke is going out of his way to point out parallels and present Mary as a new ark of the covenant.
and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Moved thusly by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth first exalts Mary and then her child. She recognizes the blessedness they possess and she praises it.
The word translated as “blessed” is eulogéō, which means to extol or to speak well of, which indicates that Elizabeth is not pronouncing a blessing over them, but instead recognizing the blessedness they already possess.
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
This blessedness Elizabeth has just alluded to is derived from the dignity of the child Mary carries, seen by her reference to him as her Lord (kýrios).
Just as David wondered how the ark of God could come to him (2 Samuel 6:9), so Elizabeth wonders how the mother of her Lord should come to her.
“Mother of my Lord” is a term that is charged with royal significance. In the royal court language of the ancient Near East, the title “mother of my Lord” would have been used to address the queen-mother, for “my lord” was a title of honor for the king himself (2 Samuel 24:21). In using this title for Mary, Elizabeth acknowledges her as the mother of the king, the queen-mother.
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Even the baby John the Baptist recognizes his Lord. His joy is the appropriate response to God’s fulfillment of promise in Jesus. Luke’s readers would have easily made the connection to King David leaping with joy before the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence in the midst of his people (2 Samuel 6:14-15). Mary is the ark and the child within her is the glory of God.
“[John the Baptist] was sanctified by the Holy Spirit while yet he was carried in his mother’s womb. … John alone, while carried in the womb, leaped for joy; and though he saw not with the eyes of the flesh, he recognized the Master by the Spirit.” [Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 350), Catechetical Lectures 3,6]
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Elizabeth concludes with a macarism, or beatitude. Mary is called blessed (makários) for having believed what had been spoken to her by the Lord, a reference to the Annunciation. In this case, it is faith, not some work of righteousness, that is extolled. She believed she would conceive and bear a son, and it has come to pass.
Connections and Themes
- On this last Sunday of Advent, the readings point directly to Christ’s imminent arrival, and the salvation his coming would ultimately effect.
- First Reading: The prophets have foretold the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom, bringing people hope. Bethlehem would be his birthplace.
- Second Reading: God’s plan is dependent upon the incarnation. The body that was offered for our salvation on the cross is the same body that grew in Mary’s womb.
- Gospel Reading: The child to be born belonged to a particular set of parents in a particular place at a particular time; we are placed squarely in history. The Messiah himself comes from simple people who live in an insignificant place, showing yet again God’s preference for doing the extraordinary with the ordinary. The extraordinary salvific deed of God was accomplished by him becoming one of us.
- When our insignificance tempts us to distance ourselves from God and others, we must remember that God has repeatedly used nothingness in glorious ways.
- John the Baptist was born from a barren, elderly woman.
- The Messiah was born in a place “too small to be among the clans of Judah.”
- “When she who is to give birth has borne” — she, a mere girl and virgin — then God’s “greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth.”
- In these last days just before Christmas, we pause with excitement and consider what we are about to celebrate, grateful for the gifts we have been given. God has prepared a future for us, a future that we have not yet stepped out into.
- Although we are on the cusp of our celebration, we are celebrating something which has already taken place. We ritually reenact it so that we may never forget it or take it for granted. We celebrate Christmas not because it has not yet occurred, but because it has already happened and continues to happen before our very eyes. He is Emmanuel, “God is with us,” not “God was with us.”