Dec 20, 2020: 4th Sunday of Advent (B)

Introduction

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 us to patience and sobriety all the while stoking 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!”

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.”

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age.

This reading from the history of the royal court is pivotal in understanding the theology that surrounds David and the line of his descendants, as well as how Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to his chosen people.

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 — two independent episodes in the life of David that are joined in the scripture with 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,

From a political point of view, King David was the greatest king the Israelites ever had. He united the twelve tribes into one kingdom and established Jerusalem as both the political and cultic capital.

This narrative opens by describing a situation of good fortune and peace in Jerusalem. David has amassed enough wealth to build a palace for himself, and he is no longer threatened by enemies.

Note how 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 political and social progress he and his people have made 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 a prophet, Nathan is God’s spokesperson. He tells King David 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?

For pagan peoples, the temple was the center of their world and the focus of their religious spirit; it was there that they kept their gods. In Israel, however, the temple will have quite a different role.

The one true God transcends all things and has no need of an earthly house in which to dwell. If he allows there to be sanctuaries, shrines, desert tabernacles, and later, the temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:1-66), these are only signs of his presence among the people, not a habitation that he in any sense needs.

Nathan’s prophecy here will show that it is not so much the temple as the Davidic dynasty that is the sign of divine presence and protection that God has established from the start.

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 from lowly shepherd to king of Israel, God points out that any success that David enjoyed came directly from God. David has not been the architect of his own fate or the fate of the people, nor will he be in the future. God is in control.

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.

[A temple will eventually be constructed in Jerusalem, of course, but King Solomon was chosen for that task (1 Kings 8:1-66).]

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.

There is a startling turn of events here, centered on a kind of play on words. David sought to build a “house of God” (temple), but God turns the tables and promises to establish a “house of David” (royal dynasty). To understand why this is so surprising, we must remember that up until now, the succession of power in Israel was determined by divine appointment, not heredity. Previously, each king 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.

What began as a discussion of the need for a temple has resulted in the establishment of a hereditary monarchy, and one with divine legitimacy. This new reality forms the center of Nathan’s entire prophetic career.

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.

The person and rule of the king will symbolize the presence of God and the active role he plays in the life of the people.

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.

For some time after King David, the Israelites celebrated their covenant relationship with God not by recalling the Exodus and celebrating the Passover, but by recalling this promise to David and celebrating their king and their kingdom. That is why the period of exile in Babylon was so painful; God seemed to have broken his promise. When the exiles returned to the holy land, they had a period of self-government, but then they were overcome by the Greeks and finally the Romans. During all this time they remembered this promise to David and the fact that God is faithful. But what could it all mean?

Thus the stage was set for the annunciation story in our gospel reading, in which the angel reveals to Mary that “the Lord God will give to [her son Jesus] the throne of his ancestor 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.

Each year, the second reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent turns to some aspect of Jesus’ coming at his birth.

Today’s reading 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 teaching, namely, that God’s new act of revelation in Christ will bring even the Gentiles to the commitment of faith.

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 and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,

Paul calls this “my gospel” not because the content is significantly different from that taught by the other Christian missionaries, but because he took up the ministry of proclaiming the good news to the Gentile world. This new direction was later confirmed by the leaders of the Jerusalem community (Galatians 2:7-9).

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 present in ages past, but as a mystery that was kept secret. Belief that the destinies of the nations were 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 (as in chapters 5-16 of Revelation), sometimes not.

Paul builds on this tradition, but with a new perspective of 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. In other words, 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 the Old Testament and there discover something of God’s plan.

Paul is not saying that the prophets directly foresaw the saving acts of Jesus Christ. If that were true, the crucifixion would not have been such a disillusioning shock for the disciples. Rather, he is saying that, in light of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and post-resurrection appearances, the words of the prophets take on a meaning not previously understood.

We see one example of this in our first reading from 2 Samuel. The words of the prophet Nathan did not lead anyone to expect that Jesus would establish a spiritual, eternal kingdom; they expected their political kingdom to continue to exist. However, events proved this understanding to be incorrect. The people were disillusioned by the loss of their kingdom, but they did not give up their belief in God’s covenant love and God’s fidelity to his promises. After Jesus rose from the dead and people understood that life is not limited to life on earth, the people reinterpreted the words that Nathan spoke to David, which were now seen in the context of the angel’s revelation to Mary in today’s gospel reading.

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

The purpose of revealing this mystery is universal salvation. All people, Gentiles included, are to be brought to the commitment of faith.

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

Finally, Paul emphasizes that only to God, through Jesus Christ, does glory belong. Although Paul’s ministry has been a huge success, he knows that the real work of revelation and salvation is God’s.

“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. 391 AD), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 27]

This short doxology, presented as one long sentence, sums up not only Paul’s teaching but the heart of the entire 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.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the gospel reading relates events that immediately preceded the Lord’s birth.

Today’s gospel reading is the annunciation to Mary, an account of which is only found in Luke’s gospel. Neither Mark nor John have any infancy stories, and in Matthew’s gospel the annunciation is to Joseph. If this passage seems familiar, we heard it just a couple of weeks ago on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

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/collaborator of Saint Paul. Although Luke is believed to have derived his gospel (and the Acts of the Apostles) from Saint Paul, it bears little reflection of 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 Paul’s theology was fully developed, before Paul engaged in serious letter writing, and
before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

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.

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.

Note how Saint Luke twice stresses Mary’s virginity.

And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! 

No angel has ever greeted anyone with such exalted language. The greeting emphatically states Mary’s extraordinary dignity as a recipient of God’s favor and gracious love. It perfectly captures the meaning of today’s celebration.

The common Greek salutation “Hail!” carries the connotation “rejoice!”, and the Greek word Luke uses for “full of grace” is in a perfect passive participle form, indicating that Mary already has been filled with God’s saving grace, even before Jesus was conceived in her womb.  The literal translation would be along the lines of “Hail, you have been and are now graced.”

The Lord is with you.” 

The second part of the greeting, “The Lord is with you,” is also important. In the Old Testament, this phrase was often used when someone was being called for a special mission. For example, when Moses was called to lead the people out of Egypt, God told him, “I will be with you.” When Joshua was called to lead Israel to the Promised Land, God said to him, “I will be with you.” When Gideon was called to defend the people against the Philistines, when David was called to lead the kingdom, when Jeremiah was called to challenge the rulers in Jerusalem, they were all told that the Lord would be with them.

In each case, the person was being commissioned to take on a seemingly impossible task, and they often felt inadequate and ill-prepared. Like them, Mary is about to be given one of the most important missions in Israel’s history: to be the mother of the Messiah, who will bring salvation to the whole world.

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

Being visited by an angel (which is often described in scripture as a terrifying experience) and the possible implications of his greeting alone has Mary anxious about what he might say next.

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

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 also 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.”

These words would have meant a lot to a young Jewish woman like Mary, for they recall covenant promises God made to King David. In our first reading, God told David that he would make his name “great” and establish “the throne of his kingdom forever.” David’s royal descendants would be like God’s son, and his “house” and “kingdom” “shall be made sure forever” (2 Samuel 7:9-16, our first reading).

For centuries, however, this Davidic dynasty stood in ruins. From the 6th century BC to Mary’s time, one foreign nation after another dominated the Jewish land, and no Davidic king occupied the throne. Through the prophets, God promised the Jews that he would send them a new king, who would free them from their enemies and fulfill the promises he made to David. This king would be called the Messiah, the “anointed one.” In Mary’s day, the Jews were still waiting and wondering when God would send the Messiah to rescue them. Now an angel has appeared and announces that the long-awaited everlasting kingdom is coming with this child!

Imagine how this poor teenage girl in a small insignificant village must have felt to hear that the Messiah-King is finally coming to Israel, and she has been chosen to be his mother.

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, which some commentators believe is the case.

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).

Thus, this child will not only be the messianic son of David; he will be the divine Son of God, coming from the Spirit and the power of God himself.

What Mary is being told is truly awesome: the all-holy Son of God will enter the world through her womb. She is called to play a crucial role in the salvation of 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; 

The God of the entire universe will dwell in Mary’s virginal womb. She will give birth to the one who gave her life. She will raise the child who is her own Savior. What a mystery!

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).

According to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and others, all the angels and saints of the Old Testament would have been holding their breath at this moment, wondering how Mary would respond. The Incarnation awaits her consent.

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

While we can’t know what she might have been thinking, her response demonstrates her complete trust and self-giving. She is totally open to God’s love.

This ‘yes’ of Mary’s is a model of faith for all believers; it undoes the disobedience of Eden and makes paradise a possibility once again for us.

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 also suggest that hers is a completely free response to God. She is a model of openness and receptivity, regardless of the apparent impossibility or corresponding 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 were begun, which 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 our 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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