4th Sunday in Advent
Theme: What God does for us is greater than what we do for God; and yet he is pleased by our desire to serve him through good works. Like King David, or our Blessed Lady, we each can have a place in God’s plan to build his Temple, to establish his kingdom of love in our world.
2 Sam 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16. King David had hoped to build a house (a temple) for God. But really it is God who will build a house (a dynasty) for him. This prophecy looks towards the coming of Jesus, David’s royal descendant.
Rom 16:25-27. God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles is fulfilled in Christ. This good news must be spread everywhere, whether by St. Paul or by people like ourselves. Advent calls us consider our part in the apostolate.
Lk 1:26-38. Mary gives her consent to become the mother of the Redeemer. Even though at first she does not fully understand what she must do, her answer is Yes. Her response allows the Messiah, David’s royal descendant, to come among us.
First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that thfey may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Resp. Psalm: Ps 89:1-4, 27, 29
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.”
Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
When a mother is expecting a baby all the focus is on the mother. She gets loads of advice – ‘be careful’, ‘don’t lift that’ and ‘don’t forget the afternoon nap’. Once the baby is born the mother recedes into the background, and now the attention is on the baby – ‘who does she look like?’ ‘what name will you give him?’ …and so on.
So, it is only proper that on the last Sunday before Christmas the Gospel is always about Mary, the mother. This year the Gospel is the story of the Annunciation, last year it was the Gospel of how Jesus came to be born, and the year before it was the story of the visit of Mary to her cousin, Elizabeth.
History: It is interesting that Mary is even more honoured in the Eastern Orthodox Church than she is in the Catholic West. In the West, after the 16th century reformation, many Protestants stopped honouring Mary. Shrines were levelled, thousands of stained glass windows were broken, statues of Mary shattered, pictures of the Madonna burnt.
Not all Protestants disowned Mary. Probably the most frequently quoted line about her is William Wordworth’s, in which he refers to her as ‘our tainted nature’s solitary boast’. Martin Luther had a deep lifelong devotion to Mary. He even kept a picture of her on his desk. Many Lutherans are unaware of this.
Only recently an agreed statement between Roman Catholics and Anglicans was issued in which Anglicans accepted the legitimacy of devotion to Mary, and even accepted an understanding of the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption.
Art: In art Jesus was originally depicted not as the risen one, not as the Crucified, nor even as a new born babe, but as a child on his mother’s lap.
The first representation of Jesus dating from the second century shows him in his mother’s arms as the Magi greet him. The paintings of the Madonna and Child by people like Leonardo, Raphael, Murillo and Fra Angelico can be found in art galleries all over Europe and beyond. Their value, like that of the sculpture of the Pieta in St. Peter’s in Rome by Michael Angelo, could not be estimated in monitory terms. In music, just think of Bach’s ‘Magnificat’ and Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’, not to mention the famous cathedrals dedicated to her name – Mary Major in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, and, the most famous of them all, Charters Cathedral in France.
Shrines: Shrines of Our Lady across the world attract more visitors than Disneyland and Disney World put together. Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico draws 23 million a year; Lourdes in France 7 million; Poland’s Black Madonna 7 million; Portugal’s Fatima 5.5 million. There are hundreds of others… Knock in Ireland attracts 1.5 million – more than the Dublin zoo and Guinness’s brewery put together. Walsingham, is the English National Shrine to our Lady. Cromwell destroyed it in 1538. It was revived at the end of the 19th century and is now an ecumenical place of pilgrimage for Catholics and Anglicans.
Message: Some take Mary’s words ‘be it done unto me according to thy word’ to mean they should imitate her obedience. Others prefer to meditate on the Magnificat. Her song brims over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary’s cry for justice:
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts
He has put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away empty.
This is Mary who inspires us to challenge injustice.
Eyes of faith
In the second reading today, which is the introduction to the Letter to the Romans, St Paul describes himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus who has been called to be an apostle, and specially chosen to preach the Good News that God promised long ago through his prophets.” We might consider the question, where in the scriptures can we find this promise of God? To do this we should bear in mind that there are two ways in which we can get to the meaning of a passage in scripture. There is, first of all, the literal sense, or what message the author wanted to convey when writing it. And then, there is the message which the Holy Spirit wants to convey to us as we read the passage.
The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah, which is known as the Emmanuel prophecy, is one of the most famous passages in all the Old Testament that illustrate the two senses in which scripture may be understood. Taken literally, it shows Isaiah urging King Ahaz to have faith in God, that the royal line of David will survive, because the newly wedded queen will give birth to a son, a promise fulfilled in the future King Hezekiah. But if taken in the hidden sense, as St Paul obviously does, as well as St Matthew in the gospel reading, this passage from earliest times had a message also from the Holy Spirit. It can be seen as a solemn promise from God that a Redeemer will be born of a virgin, and that his name will be Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”
The challenge of all three readings is that of a call to faith. In each a chosen individual is being asked to make an act of faith. King Ahaz was called upon to have trust in God, and not try God’s patience. St Paul became aware, again by faith, that his mission was to preach the word to the gentiles, and this, by the way, only after many years’ reflection on the message imparted to him after being struck down while on the road to Damascus. Finally, St Joseph, as we see in today’s gospel reading, was the first living person after Mary, who was asked to make an act of faith in Christ. He was called upon to believe that the child Mary was carrying was of divine origin – a most difficult thing for him to do, since it seemed to run counter to his marital rights. Indeed the mystery of a virgin birth must have been a far greater stumbling block for him than for us who have become so familiar with it. We have come to accept that God works in mysterious ways that confound human wisdom, ways demanding reflection and faith. Perhaps Joseph was helped by reflecting on God’s promise to Abraham, one most unlikely to be fulfilled, that he would be the father of a great people, even though he was an old man, and his wife Sarah had been sterile from her youth. Yet fulfilled it was.
Perhaps we too should ask ourselves, what particular act of faith is God asking of me at this time. Part of the answer is to be found in the New Testament where it states that what makes a person acceptable to God is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 2:16). This faith is not merely intellectual assent; it is an entrusting of ourselves to Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ. For we believe that, at the first Christmas, not only did the Blessed Trinity come down to us in visible form in God the Son made man, but that in and through the Son made man it has been made possible for us to be drawn into the glorious intimacy of the most holy Trinity.
For us Christmas should be a time of joy, not so much because Christ became one with us, as that he made it possible for us to become one with him. Yet the whole significance of St Luke’s account of the birth of Christ is that the people of Israel did not receive the “expected one” when he arrived. We get hints of this from the utterances of the two great prophets of the Old Testament, Jeremiah and Isaiah, who lived several hundreds of years prior to the birth of Christ. He was treated like an alien by his own people, like a traveller, as Jeremiah puts it, who has stopped but for a night. Again, according to Isaiah, the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s manger, but Israel rejected its messiah; there was no room for him at the inn. Do we close our hearts to Christ? We must listen to St Paul’s last words to his converts at Corinth, “Examine yourselves to make sure you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is really in you? If not you have failed the test” (2 Cor 13:5) We can put Christ back into Christmas by putting him first into ourselves.
Jesus, Our Ladder to God
1. What’s in a name?
What can it tell about the person who owns it? Not much, unless it happens to be a well-chosen nick-name. Names like Helen, Sharon or Jason are useful for distinguishing various members of a family; but they don’t say much about the people themselves. A name seldom tells about the personality or life-work of the one who carries it. With some Biblical names it is different. For instance, Abraham meant “Father of a great people” (Gen. 17:5) and Moses meant “Rescued from the Waters” (Ex. 2:10.) Above all, our blessed Lord has names which tell us everything about him: “Jesus” means “God saves,” “Christ” means “God’s Anointed Messiah” and the name “Emmanuel” in today’s Gospel, means “God in our midst.”
2. Centre of our faith
How important is Jesus, really, for our religious belief? Be honest. Ask the man-in-the-street what Christianity all about, and what’s the usual answer? Something to do with loving your neighbour; keeping the law; going to church on a Sunday? Not often will there be a direct mention of Jesus Christ, who is at the very centre of our faith. Ghandi once said, If you Christians took your Christ to heart, the whole world would be Christian.
3. Our Pontifex
Nowadays, one of the most positive trends is in building up community, sharing efforts and projects with others, seeking out ways find common ground with long-term enemies. In a word, bridge-building and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. The greatest bridge-builder of all, who spans the gulf between us and God, is Jesus Christ. (High-Priest: Pontifex.) “No man has ever seen God; the Only-Begotten Son, who is closest to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (Jn. 1:18.)
4. Who shares our Lot
At Christmas we will concentrate on the simplicity and poverty of Our Lord’s birth: how human he was, born of a young woman, not in luxurious comfort, but in the discomfort of a stable. That shows him as one of us, the human side of “Emmanuel.” This gospel however mentions the divine origin of Jesus. Although he has a human mother, he has not a human father, but was conceived in Mary by the power of God. This unique way of coming into life, with God as father, and the virgin Mary as mother, underlines who Jesus truly is: both God and man, one of ourselves and yet one with the eternal God.
5. St. Joseph’s Faith
If this mystery seems deep to us, it must have been baffling for St Joseph. Close to Mary as he was, and yet seeing her pregnant without any action on his part, Joseph could only accept in faith what God’s messenger told him, that the child was in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. With great patience and humility, Joseph accepted the part for which God had chosen him, as human foster-father to the Saviour. This faithful acceptance is just what is required of each of us, when Christ comes into our lives, as “God-with-us.
Believe that God is with us
Moments of crisis reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t face up to very often. They can show where our real self lies. Do we react defensively or aggressively Out of self-concern, or are we able to see beyond ourselves to the care of others? Usually crisis is also a test of our faith; are we really convinced about God’s care and support for us?
One could use today’s first reading as a lead-in to analyse what true faith is. We are presented with king Ahaz who could not rely on God in the great political crisis of his life. He needed the support of military and political security systems. Is our faith much the same? Is the god we trust usually the power of this world, only turning to the true God as an extra insurance,” a guarantee of some-thing to look forward to when this world is over? The message of the scriptures is that such faith is inadequate. Real faith is the conviction of God’s continual presence with us, and not just in those moments when human presence and support fails. Real faith accepts the reality of God in the strong as well as the weak moments of life, Real faith sees God as a dimension of all our experience, the Emmanuel.
This reality of God-with-us is admittedly a mystery, and faith in this mystery is a gift. However, to say that faith is a gift should not be used as a “cop-out,” a pretence that it is totally beyond us, a gift for the chosen few. We all have some dimension of faith in our lives, we are all offered some share in this gift. We are invited today to use what we have been given, to develop it through real searching for the truth in all things. We are also called to make the great decisions of our lives conscientiously according to the faith we have been given.
In bringing out this sense of responsibility for our own faith one should be careful not to create false expectations or exaggerated guilt. Faith as gift remains mysterious, and is confronted by many difficulties in our times. Faced with real doubts our faith needs confirmation, it needs some kinds of sign.
Faith may involve a leap in the dark, it may be the “conviction about things we do not see” (Heb 11:1), but seeking signs to confirm that conviction is not necessarily a testing of God as Ahaz would have us believe. It is only when we demand signs as a pre-requisite without which we refuse to believe, it is only then that the seeking for a sign is contrary to true faith (cf. Mk 8:11-13.) Signs can be sought legitimately and offered as confirmation for those who are truly open to the word of God and struggling to be faithful to what they know of him.
The sign that was offered to Ahaz was a sign of life continuing through and beyond the crisis. This new life would confirm that God was with his people. The promise and the sign were vindicated by the events.
Still, the promise that God is with us was not for Isaiah’s time only, it is for all time. In the Christian era the sign of that continuing presence is another young woman and her child, the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. For Joseph the unexpected pregnancy of Mary was not a sign to confirm his trust either in her or God, it was a contradictory sign. In the hours of his darkness he found the enlightening Spirit of God, the Spirit who teaches us not to judge by what our eyes see or by what our ears hear (cf. Is 11:3.) This gospel shows us that the signs God gives are not always the ones we would choose for ourselves. He gives signs for those who are willing to take on the darkness of doubt in openness and sincerity. There are no signs for those locked into the need for security only on their own terms.
Ultimately faith is obedience, the gift of response to him who is both son of David and son of God (second reading.) Christ himself in his life, death and resurrection is the ultimate sign of God’s presence in our world. It is he alone who can evoke the fullness of that presence. It is in our experiences and encounters with those who reflect Christ and his gospel that we find signs of God to confirm our faith. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed him” (Jn 1:1-18.)
A Female Figure With A Child
When that the Eternal deigned to look
on us poor men to set us free,
He chose a maiden whom he took
from Nazareth in Galilee.
The English writer, Hilaire Belloc, came across an item in a newspaper in the early part of this century. It concerned a dispute between an Anglican vicar and his bishop. It appears that the vicar had decided to erect a statue of Mary, the Mother of God, in one of the niches of his church.
These mysteries profoundly shook
The Reverend Doctor Lee, D.D.,
Who forthwith stuck into a nook,
or niche of his encumbancy,
high on the wall for all to see,
a statue of the undefiled
the universal mother, she,
a Female figure with a Child.
Some parishioners complained to the bishop about it. Whereupon, the bishop…
Wrote off at once to Doctor Lee,
in manner, very far from mild,
and said: “Remove them instantly,
this Female figure with a Child.’
The bishop, it seems, was “not satisfied with trying the patience of men, (or at least that of Dr. Lee) without trying the patience of God too.” He does not appear to have been familiar with today’s reading from Isaiah: The Lord himself, therefore will give you a sign. it is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel, a name which means “God-is-with-us.”
From the beginning, faith in the virginal conception of Jesus has always met with “the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike.” It continues to be the one teaching of the church which attracts most contempt from unbelievers and most doubt from believers. It is pointless trying to placate the one or convince the other. It can be accepted only on faith and “in the totality of Christ’s mysteries.” What separated the vicar from his bishop was faith.
The next time we meet will be at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, to celebrate the Virgin Birth. It is too late now to send you a Christmas card. But I can suggest one to you. It is a simple line drawing of a “female figure with a child.” Underneath, is the little prayer Belloc concluded his poem with:
Prince Jesus, in mine agony,
permit me, broken and defiled,
through blurred and glazing eyes, to see
a Female figure with a Child.
Knowing our place before God
The gospel sets the scene for the birth of Jesus. Mary was to be married to Joseph. In the meantime, the angel had appeared to Mary, she had said her yes, and Jesus was already conceived within her womb. Mary was wrapped in mystery, in something she humbly accepted as being from God, and something she herself couldn’t possibly understand. Her role, the role of the humble servant, was to obey, and leave it to God to take care of the details. One of those details was how Joseph would react when he heard what had happened. He was a good man, and he was deeply troubled when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. He decided on an honourable course of action, when God stepped in, as Mary expected and, through the medium of a dream, all Joseph’s troubles and fears were resolved. He, too, was humble, and his role was to obey and accept the directions given him by God.
I spent many years teaching in schools. One of those subjects was swimming, on two afternoons a week. The whole thrust of the exercise was to get the pupils to trust me enough to follow exactly all the instructions I gave. The earlier ones were simple, such as jumping in at the shallow end, holding the bar, kicking their feet, etc. Inevitably, after many visits to the pool, the big test always arrived. The pupil was now at the deep end, clinging to that bar for dear life. Letting go of the bar, and following my instructions, was a real test of their trust in me, and their faith in themselves. The sheer delight on the face, when someone made it to the other side of the pool, was ample reward for all efforts invested. The reality, of course, was that any one of them could have let go of that bar, and swum the width of the pool the very day they came there. However, they were not ready yet. They still did not have enough faith either in themselves or in me. I was always deeply aware of the many many bars they would have to let go of during their lifetime, as each major decision came up. (Please excuse the pun, but many of them may have found it difficult, if not impossible, to let go of their local bar. I have met a few.)
It is really difficult for us to know our place before God. I know I speak of the impossible here, but imagine how you would feel if you could actually see yourself placed against the background of an infinite omnipotent God. Even the atom would look like a mountain by comparison with your own sense of nothingness. Humility is truth; that means, accepting things exactly as they are. Pride is frightfully destructive, and its expressions are obnoxious: arrogance, haughtiness, aloofness, disdain, sarcasm, etc., etc. My own father had a habit of correcting us by saying, “You don’t seem to know your place.” I’m sure he was right, but I now ask my heavenly Father, through the action of his Spirit, to ensure that I always know my place.