Dec 19, 2021: Weekdays of Advent from December 17 to 24

Introduction

The last eight days of Advent (December 17-24) are a time of intense preparation in anticipation of the birth of Christ. During this final stretch before Christmas, special readings are used for the weekday Masses, and the traditional “O Antiphons” are employed in the liturgy.

During these eight days, the Gospel readings cover all of Matthew Chapter 1 and Luke Chapter 1, sequentially; the first readings are selected thematically from various prophetic books of the Old Testament.

1st Reading – Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a

There was a certain man from Zorah, of the clan of the Danites,
whose name was Manoah. 
His wife was barren and had borne no children. 
An angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her,
“Though you are barren and have had no children,
yet you will conceive and bear a son. 
Now, then, be careful to take no wine or strong drink
and to eat nothing unclean.
As for the son you will conceive and bear,
no razor shall touch his head,
for this boy is to be consecrated to God from the womb. 
It is he who will begin the deliverance of Israel
from the power of the Philistines.”

The woman went and told her husband,
“A man of God came to me;
he had the appearance of an angel of God, terrible indeed. 
I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. 
But he said to me,
‘You will be with child and will bear a son. 
So take neither wine nor strong drink, and eat nothing unclean. 
For the boy shall be consecrated to God from the womb,
until the day of his death.’”

The woman bore a son and named him Samson. 
The boy grew up and the LORD blessed him;
the Spirit of the LORD stirred him.

The thirteenth chapter of Judges begins the story of Samson, the last of the judges of Israel. In today’s first reading, Samson’s impending birth is announced by an angel.

There was a certain man from Zorah, of the clan of the Danites,
whose name was Manoah. 

The tribe of Dan signifies justice. In Hebrew, the verb for “acheive justice” is from the same root as the name Dan. When Dan, son of Jacob, was born, Rachel named him Dan based on the term dannanni, which means “he has vindicated me” (Genesis 30:6).

His wife was barren and had borne no children. An angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son. 

As with Jesus and John the Baptist, the birth of Samson is announced by an angel. The angel confirms his angelic identity by demonstrating his knowledge of her affliction of being barren; a mere stranger would not have this kind of insight.

Many eminent persons were born of mothers who were barren for a long time, including Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

Now, then, be careful to take no wine or strong drink and to eat nothing unclean. As for the son you will conceive and bear, no razor shall touch his head, for this boy is to be consecrated to God from the womb. 

The word rendered here as “consecrated” is the Hebrew nazir. Samson’s parents are told that their son will be a Nazirite, consecrated to God from his birth. His vocation has been decided before he was even conceived.

The Nazirites took a vow that obliged them to abstain from drinking wine or cutting their hair (see Numbers 6:2-8). Here, the angel instructs Samson’s mother to abstain from strong drink and eating anything unclean while pregnant (and presumably while nursing) so that he would be consecrated even in the womb and at the breast.

It is he who will begin the deliverance of Israel from the power of the Philistines.”

Samson will perform a specific mission. In this account, vocation, dedication to God, and mission are all closely linked.

In the time of Samson, Israel was terribly oppressed by the Philistines. This oppression would last a long time; note that Samson will only begin to deliver them, and even then only once he had come of age.

The woman went and told her husband, “A man of God came to me; he had the appearance of an angel of God, terrible indeed. 

We often imagine angels as beautiful, peaceful, and serene, but angels are most often described in Scripture as terrifying. It is unclear whether it’s their countenance that is so upsetting, or the fact that they have appeared unexpectedly, or that they have historically delivered startling or difficult news.

I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. 
But he said to me, ‘You will be with child and will bear a son. So take neither wine nor strong drink, and eat nothing unclean. For the boy shall be consecrated to God from the womb, until the day of his death.’”

Samson’s mother shares what happened to her with her husband Manoah, who helps her and benefits himself from the experience.

Notice how all the initiative lies with God. He has seen his people’s predicament and prepares, from birth onwards, a man who will save them from their enemies.

The woman bore a son and named him Samson. 

The woman that had been long barren bore a son, according to the angel’s word.

The boy grew up and the LORD blessed him; the Spirit of the LORD stirred him.

God blessed Samson, qualifying him in both body and mind for something great and extraordinary.

Gospel – Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod, King of Judea,
there was a priest named Zechariah
of the priestly division of Abijah;
his wife was from the daughters of Aaron,
and her name was Elizabeth. 
Both were righteous in the eyes of God,
observing all the commandments
and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren
and both were advanced in years. 

Once when he was serving as priest
in his division’s turn before God,
according to the practice of the priestly service,
he was chosen by lot
to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. 
Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside
at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him,
standing at the right of the altar of incense. 
Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. 

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
because your prayer has been heard. 
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you shall name him John. 
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. 
He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. 
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,
and he will turn many of the children of Israel
to the Lord their God. 
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah
to turn the hearts of fathers toward children
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous,
to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” 

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
“How shall I know this? 
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 
And the angel said to him in reply,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. 
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah
and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them,
and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. 
He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home. 

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit
to take away my disgrace before others.”

Like Matthew’s gospel, the Gospel according to Luke begins with an infancy narrative, that is, a collection of stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Luke’s account presents parallel scenes (diptychs) of John and Jesus: angelic announcements of their births, the births themselves, their circumcisions, and presentations in the temple.

In this parallelism, the ascendency of Jesus over John is stressed:

  • John is prophet of the Most High (Luke 1:76), Jesus is Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32);
  • John is great in the sight of the Lord (Luke 1:15), Jesus will be Great (an attribute used in the Septuagint exclusively of God, Luke 1:32);
  • John will go before the Lord (Luke 1:16-17), Jesus will be Lord (Luke 1:43; 2:11).

Today’s gospel reading recounts the angelic announcement of the birth of John the Baptist.

In the days of Herod, King of Judea,

Luke places the story of salvation history in the context of events in world history. Herod the Great, the son of the Idumean Antipater, was declared “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC, but became the undisputed ruler of Palestine only in 37 BC.

there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah;

There were twenty-four divisions of priests who, for a week at a time, twice a year, served in the temple (1 Chronicles 24:7-19). The eighth of these was that of the family of Abijah.

his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 

Like her husband, Elizabeth has status through her ancestry.

Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments
and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.

After referring to the noble ancestry of both Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke now speaks of a higher type of nobility: virtue.

But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. 

Though childlessness was looked upon in contemporaneous Judaism as a curse or punishment for sin, Luke’s reference to the blamelessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth shows that is not the intention here. Instead, Luke is presenting Elizabeth in a situation similar to that of some of the great mothers of Old Testament figures: Sarah (Genesis 15-16), Rebekah (Genesis 25), Rachel (Genesis 29), Hannah (1 Samuel 1), and the mother of Samson (Judges 13, our first reading).

Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot
to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. 

The function of each priestly division was determined by the drawing of lots. Zechariah’s division was assigned to perform the incense offering at a special altar in the sanctuary of the temple.

Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside
at the hour of the incense offering,

While the priest offered incense to God, the people in the courtyard joined with him in spirit. Even in the Old Testament, every external act of worship was meant to be accompanied by an interior disposition of self-offering to God.

the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. 

As discussed with our first reading, angelic encounters were often very unsettling events.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,

This is the standard phrase used to reassure the recipient of a heavenly vision (see Genesis 15:1, Joshua 1:9, Daniel 10:12-19 for examples).

because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. 

Elizabeth is quite old but she is going to have a son. The name means “God is gracious,” an indication of John’s role in salvation history for all mankind.

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

Zechariah is given three reasons why he should rejoice over the birth of this child, the first being that God will bestow exceptional holiness on him.

He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. 

Like Samson (in our first reading) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1), John is to be consecrated by Nazirite vow and set apart for the Lord’s service.

He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.

The second reason for Zechariah to rejoice: his son will lead many to salvation.

He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah

John is to be the messenger sent before Yahweh, as described in Malachi 3:1-2. He is cast, moreover, in the role of the Old Testament fiery reformer, the prophet Elijah, who according to Malachi 3:23 is sent before “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” 

The third reason to rejoice: John’s whole life, everything he does, will prepare the way for the expected Messiah.

Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Zechariah’s response to the angel is a skeptical demand for proof. Perhaps he had forgotten that God had done this very thing before, when he gave Samson to the barren wife of Manaoah (Judges 13, our first reading).

Zechariah has lost sight of the fact that God is almighty; he has limited his thinking to the presumption that he and Elizabeth are past child-bearing age.

And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God.

The angel is identified as Gabriel, whose name means “might of God,” a less than subtle reminder to Zechariah of God’s omnipotence. By giving his name and rank (an angel in direct attendance to God himself), he adds credibility and weight to his sacred message.

It was Gabriel who in Daniel 9:20-25 announced the seventy weeks of years and the coming of an anointed prince. By alluding to Old Testament themes here and in verse 17 (allusions to Elijah), Luke is underscoring the significance of the births of John and Jesus.

I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”

Zechariah’s becoming mute serves two purposes: It is a punishment for his incredulity, and it is also the sign he asked for in verse 18.

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

After performing the incense offering, the priest would emerge from the temple and dismiss them after pronouncing a blessing upon them in the name of the Lord. Of course, being rendered mute, he was unable to do so.

Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home. 

Although he cannot speak, Zechariah is still able to perform his duties for the duration of his assignment.

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”

Elizabeth secluded herself because of the strangeness of pregnancy at her age and out of a holy modesty, in order to not make known God’s gifts prematurely.

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