Dec 21, 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 (Option 1) – Song of Songs 2:8-14

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!
O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice, 
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”

The first option for our first reading is from The Song of Songs, a title that  means “the greatest of songs.” In exquisite poetic form, this book portrays the nuances of mutual love.

Song of Songs can be interpreted in three ways:

  • as an exposition of human love,
  • as an allegorical celebration of the spousal covenant between God and Israel in the time of the restoration, and
  • as an allegorical portrayal of the love between Christ and his bride, the Church.

The poem is not an allegory in which each remark between the lovers has a higher meaning; rather, it is a parable in which the true meaning of mutual love emanates from the poem as a whole.

Hark! my lover–here he comes

The poem begins with the voice of the beloved (God’s people / the Church), waiting for her lover (God / Christ). Notice how she rejoices in his approach. Later we will see that she recognizes his voice before she sees him.

This reading fits well with our Advent preparations: the beloved’s anticipation of the coming of the lover mirror’s our own anticipation of the coming of Christ.

springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag.

Christ comes to us happily, with excitement and vigor, easily overcoming every obstacle in his way.

Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices.

This was the state of the faithful in the time of the Old Testament, while in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. They had only a partial view of Christ, but from our post-resurrection perspective, we can clearly see his presence in the Old Testament scriptures.

My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!

The body of the poem is the lover’s invitation to come away and celebrate their love. Christ, by expressing his love to believers, invites and encourages them to follow him.

The romanticism of the Song of Songs reveals the depths of God’s love for each of us.

For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. 

The poem also celebrates a rebirth of nature. Just as the fruitfulness of spring overcomes the infertility of winter, love triumphs over the selfishness that imprisons us within ourselves.

Christ overcame the winter of his suffering and death, the curse of the law, and the weight of sin. The spring of a new age, a messianic age, has arrived.

Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!

He repeats his gracious call to go along with him, invited by the pleasures of the returning spring. He is earnest; we need encouragement to approach him.

O my dove in the clefts of the rock,

King David called the church God’s turtle-dove (Psalm 74:19). The image implies a harmless, loving quietness.

in the secret recesses of the cliff,

The beloved’s hiding in the clefts of the rock can be interpreted either as an act of humility and piety (as Moses hid in the clefts of the rock to behold God’s glory, in Exodus 33:22) or fear and shame for lack of worthiness.

Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”

Christ reassures his beloved (i.e., us) and gently calls her out of hiding. In his eyes she is beautiful. All fear, discouragement, and guilt give way when we hear his consoling words. As we hear from Zephaniah in our alternate first reading, “God will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love” (Zephaniah 3:17).

Christ meets us where we are, in whatever state we are in, and loves us unconditionally.

1st Reading (Option 2) – Zephaniah 3:14-18a

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has removed the judgment against you,
he has turned away your enemies;
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.
On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
He will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.

The second option for our first reading is an oracle of salvation from the prophet Zephaniah, a hymn of joy sung by the remnant of Israel that will be restored to Zion.

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

Zephaniah instructs the people to cast aside all reserve and rejoice wholeheartedly: Shout! Sing! Be glad and exult!

Though Zion and Jerusalem are usually associated with the monarchy, there is no royal reference here. The nation as a whole is being addressed, identified as a cherished daughter.

The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.

The reason for their rejoicing is twofold: 1) deliverance from their enemies, accomplished by God, and 2) the abiding presence of God in their midst.

Note the reference to God as the King of Israel. This is a reference to the early period of Israel’s history, when God was the only king they knew. (The Israelites insulted God’s kingship and asked for a king to govern them “like all the nations” in 1 Samuel 8.)

On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!

“On that day” is a common prophetic allusion to the “day of the Lord,” a future time when the justice of God will be executed throughout the world.

This expression “fear not” usually accompanies assurance of Yahweh’s saving presence in an oracle (e.g., 2 Kings 6:16; 1 Chronicles 22:13).

The literal translation of “be not discouraged” is “let not your hands be slack,” like one paralyzed in fear (see Isaiah 13:7).

The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior;

Referring to God as their king and savior, the prophet is reminding them that salvation and deliverance come not from a human king, but from God alone.

he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.

The reading closes with a tender expression of God’s love.

The verb for rejoice is śimhî, the same word traditionally used for a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride. The verb translated as “renew” is hāraš, which literally means “to be quiet,” indicating that this love is too deep to be expressed in words. An intimate relationship is clearly intended.

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.”

Our gospel reading for today is Luke’s beautiful story of The Visitation, that is, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth after each has conceived a child.

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 

At the annunciation in yesterday’s gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38), 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 “in haste” to visit her.

We do not know where exactly Elizabeth was living; the only geographic detail provided is “the hill country of Judah.”  Regardless of the specific site (many scholars believe it to be Ain Karim), a journey from Nazareth into the hill country at that time would have taken four days. Mary seems to have no regard for the difficulty this involves.

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, paying that deference to an older woman which is becoming to a girl. Its effect was profound.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,

The infant in Elizabeth’s womb is, of course, John the Baptist. 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. John’s role as a witness to Jesus is an important element in all four gospels, even the two (Mark and John) that do not have birth narratives.

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

Anaphoneo (“cried out”) is the word used almost every time in the Greek Old Testament to portray the Levites exclaiming and praising God before the ark of the covenant.

Luke seems to be 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.

When we pray the Hail Mary, we repeat these divine greetings, “rejoicing with Mary at her dignity as Mother of God and praising the Lord, thanking him for having given us Jesus Christ through Mary” (Saint Pius X, Catechism, 333).

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).

This is the first time in the gospels that anyone has referred to Jesus as Lord, and there can be no doubt what Elizabeth intended by doing so, for her words allude to another “coming of the Lord.” When the ark of the Lord was brought to Jerusalem, King David said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9).

Further, “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).

Elizabeth’s words and her infant’s leaping both give witness to the incarnation: God has become a human being. Mary is the new ark.

“[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 (350 AD), 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. Mary is holy, or blessed, because she is a model disciple: She believed she would conceive and bear a son, and it has come to pass.

“Virgin Mother of God, he whom the heavens cannot contain, on becoming man, enclosed himself within your womb” (Roman Missal, Antiphon of the Common of the Mass for Feasts of our Lady).

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