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 – 1 Samuel 1:24-28
In those days,
Hannah brought Samuel with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
“Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.”
She left Samuel there.
Today’s first reading is an excerpt from the early history of Samuel, a prophet who played a key role in Israel’s transition from biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from King Saul to King David.
Like Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, Samuel’s birth was foretold by an angel. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was childless; at long last, her fervent prayers for a child were answered.
In this passage, Hannah gives thanks for the birth of her child.
In those days,
The verses that precede this passage tell us that these events happened just after Samuel was weaned. Some believe this refers to being weaned from the breast, which would have meant that Samuel was around three years old. Others believe it refers to being weaned from childish things, since presenting a three-year-old boy for service at the temple would have been very unusual. If that were the case, he would be somewhere between eight and ten years of age.
Hannah brought Samuel with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
Hannah presents Samuel at the temple along with a sacrifice, and a significantly valuable one at that.
An ephah was a dry measure of about one bushel.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull, Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: “Pardon, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
Hannah is referring to an earlier event, when the priest Eli observed Hannah praying at the temple for the blessing of a child (1 Samuel 1:9-17). That earlier passage tells us that Hannah was prompted by “deep sorrow and misery” to “pour her heart out to the Lord.”
At the time, Eli encouraged her, saying, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have requested.”
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Hannah gratefully acknowledges God’s goodness in answer to her prayer. She is a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which serves as the connection to today’s gospel reading); she is also the prototype of the devout woman who perseveres in prayer, convinced that it will be heard.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.” She left Samuel there.
What a tremendous act. Having been given the child she prayed desperately for, Hannah gives the child back to God in the form of service at the temple. And she does this not for a specified term, as for an apprenticeship, but durante vita, as long he lives.
Anything we give to God was first his gift to us.
Gospel – Luke 1:46-56
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Mary remained with her about three months
and then returned to her home.
Today’s gospel reading is Mary’s famous hymn-like prayer of praise that we often refer to as the Magnificat (named for the prayer’s first word in Latin).
Mary, having just experienced the Annunciation, has traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. During her long journey, Mary had plenty of time to ponder the words Gabriel had just spoken to her. The Magnificat gives us insight into the emotional and spiritual journey Mary has been making.
Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
Mary’s hymn of praise is a poem of singular beauty. It bears strong parallels with the victory hymns of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-18), Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Judith (Judith 16:1-17).
The lowliness of Mary is contrasted with the might of God, for whom nothing is impossible.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary humbly stands in awe before the fact that God has chosen her for such a high calling, to serve as the mother of the Messiah. The more magnificent the accomplishments in her life, the clearer will God’s power and might be seen, for only God could bring about such wonders.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
This is the way God has acted from age to age, offering mercy to those who are open to it, to those who stand in awe of God’s greatness.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
While the first part of her prayer describes the great things God did for Mary, these last verses connect his actions in her life with what God wants to accomplish in the lives of all his people. She views herself as the first recipient of the blessings God wishes to bring to all the faithful.
We must remember just how revolutionary Christianity was in its time (and still is today):
- Moral revolution: dispersing the arrogant of mind and heart
- Social revolution: throwing down rulers and lifting up the lowly
- Economic revolution: filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty
God nourished the chosen people with his Law and the preaching of his prophets, but the rest of mankind was left hungry for his word, a hunger now satisfied by the Incarnation. This gift of God will be accepted by the humble; the self-sufficient, having no desire for the good things of God, will not partake of them (see Saint Basil’s In Psalmos Homilae, on Psalm 33).
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The reference to the promise made to Abraham places all God’s blessings within the context of the covenant associated with this prominent ancestor (Genesis 15:1-21; 17:1-14).
Mary proclaims that God, in keeping with his promise, has always taken special care of his chosen people — and now does them the greatest honor of all by himself becoming a Jew.
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The two women remain together for three months. Note that Elizabeth readily accepts help from Mary while submitting to the fact that her child will be of lesser stature. There is only love between them.