Dec 20, 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 – Isaiah 7:10-14

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

Today we read from Isaiah, the prophet who offered hope to the Jewish people in the 8th century BC. (If this reading seems familiar, it is also heard on the 4th Sunday of Advent in Year A.)

This passage may be one of the best known, yet least understood, passages from the great prophet. The passage itself contains many ambiguities, but the predominant way it has been understood may result more from its New Testament reinterpretation (see Matthew 1:23) than from the Isaian context.

Immediately upon his accession to the throne, around 735 BC, Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom), was confronted with a crisis. Assyria’s armies were poised to invade Judah at any moment. To oppose Assyria, the Kingdom of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Damascus (Syria) had created a powerful coalition. These kings wished to compel Ahaz to join them, and they were already on Judah’s soil. Regardless of which side he took, the decision would end Judah’s independence.

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;

Isaiah’s counsel to Ahaz was to trust in God rather than foreign allies. He tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God, for two reasons: 1) to prove that his prophecy is true, and 2) to show God’s fidelity to God’s promises to the house of David.

let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!

There seem to be no bounds to the character of the sign he is allowed to request. It need not be something miraculous (see Isaiah 37:30), but it should be something that will convince Ahaz that it is from God.

But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”

Ahaz has already chosen not to trust in God’s faithfulness, and he compounds his lack of faith by feigning piety — he insists that he will not tempt the Lord.

Then Isaiah said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? 

The prophet responds in apparent exasperation. His formal address to the “house of David” indicates that the issue at hand relates to the monarchy and not merely with the personal life of the king. He is also reminding Ahaz that God promised to protect David’s kingdom. Ahaz is a descendant of King David. Why can’t he trust God’s promise?

Ahaz’s behavior has not only piqued the people, but God is tired of it as well.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:

Despite the king’s faithlessness, God’s fidelity endures and God will give a sign even though Ahaz has refused to request one. The sign that will be given and the meaning it carries are the heart of this prophetic utterance.

the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

Prophecies are often interpreted as being fulfilled in more than one way. The first fulfillment would usually occur within the lifetime of the hearer, lending a critical source of credibility to the prophet and his message. Later events could also fulfill a prophecy, sometimes in a much different way. Such is the case here.

Two Hebrew words are translated to “virgin”: betûlâ, and the word used by Isaiah here, which is almâ. Betûlâ is the more technical term, usually referring to one who has not had any sexual encounter. Almâ, used here, denotes a young woman of marriageable age — perhaps a virgin, perhaps not.

Isaiah proclaimed this solemn oracle before a royal court which was fearful that the Davidic dynasty would be overthrown. Such a catastrophe would mean the cancellation of the great dynastic promise made to David’s house (2 Samuel 7:12-16). A royal child who signifies the presence of God with the people would indeed be a sign of God’s fulfillment of this promise.

In that light, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that even if he is unfaithful to God, God will not be unfaithful to the nation. Ahaz will have a son who will be a much better king than Ahaz. This future king will rule in such a way that it will be obvious that God is with God’s people.

Ahaz did have a son, Hezekiah, who was a much more faithful king than his father. Hezekiah’s mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been an almâ. In Hezekiah’s birth, Judah would see the continuing presence of God among his people and another renewal of the promise made to David.

The solemnity of the oracle and the meaning of the name Emmanuel (“God with us”) imply that Isaiah’s prophecy has a deeper secondary meaning, one that foresees an ideal king from David’s line through whose coming God could finally be said to definitively be with his people. This does not mean that Isaiah foresaw the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ, but he certainly expressed a hope that Christ perfectly realized.

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.

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 infancy stories; in Matthew’s gospel, the annunciation is to Joseph.

If this passage seems familiar, it is the gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as well as for the Fourth Sunday in Advent for Year B.

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.

Although many suggestions have been made as to what the name Mary means, most of the best scholars seem to agree that Mary means “lady.” However, no single meaning fully conveys the richness of the name.

Notice how Saint Luke twice stresses Mary’s virginity. God disclosed his choice to be born of a virgin centuries earlier through the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23).

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

No angel has ever greeted a human with such exalted language.

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. Thus, the greeting is equivalent to “Rejoice! You have been and are now graced.”

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church “taught that this singular, solemn and unheard-of greeting showed that all the divine graces reposed in the Mother of God and that she was adorned with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” which meant that she “was never subject to the curse,” that is, was preserved from all sin. These words of the archangel constitute one of the sources which reveal the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception (cf. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus; Paul VI, Creed of the People of God).

The Lord is with you.” 

The second part of the greeting, “the Lord is with you,” is also important. This is not simply a greeting (“the Lord be with you”) but an affirmation (“the Lord is with you”).

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.

Mary is troubled by the presence of the archangel (which is often described in scripture as a terrifying experience) and by the confusion that truly humble people experience when they receive praise.

The possible implications of Gabriel’s greeting (i.e., that she is about to be given a special calling) would certainly have 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.

The archangel sets Mary’s mind at ease.

The fact that Mary felt fear does not imply the least trace of imperfection in her: hers is a perfectly natural reaction in the face of the supernatural.

Imperfection would arise if one did not overcome this fear, or rejected the advice of those in a position to help — as Gabriel is here.

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.”

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 appears 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.

The “shadow” is a symbol of the presence of God.

When Israel was journeying through the wilderness, the glory of God filled the Tabernacle and a cloud overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 40:34-36). And when God gave Moses the commandments, a cloud overshadowed Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:15-16). Looking forward, at the transfiguration of Jesus, the voice of God the Father was heard coming from a cloud (Luke 9:35).

Some commentators see this as a reference to Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Word of God. 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 (John 1:1).

What Mary is being told is truly awesome: the all-holy Son of God will enter the world through her womb, and she will become a tabernacle of God. 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 God assured 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.”

Despite the disproportion between what Mary is going to become (the Mother of God) and what she is (a woman), it is clear that this is what God wants to happen and for him nothing is impossible.

So Mary, combining humility and obedience, responds perfectly to God’s call, demonstrating her complete trust and self-giving. She is totally open to God’s love.

This is Mary’s famous fiat (Latin for “let it be done”). Mary’s “yes” 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 hardships of her task.

“The Blessed Virgin, our teacher in all we do, shows us here that obedience to God is not servile, does not bypass our conscience. We should be inwardly moved to discover the ‘freedom of the children of God’ (cf. Romans 8:21)” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By, 173).

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