18 Dec. 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Sam 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16. King David had hoped to build a house (a temple) for God. But he has to accept that it is really God who will build a house (a dynasty) for him.
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.
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.
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.
As Nathan promised
Today we have in the Reading from the Book of Samuel one of the most important prophecies of all, for God’s chosen people of the Old Testament. It is the prophecy of Nathan and was stated in the form of a contrast. David is not to build a house (a temple) for God, but on the contrary God is to build a house (a dynasty) for David, and this house will never fall. “Your house will always stand, and your throne will be established for ever,” was the definite promise. From that time on, the Jewish people firmly believed that the royal line of David had a lasting place in God’s plans for Israel, that the monarchy would never collapse.)
But collapse it did, before the forces of Babylon, and Israel’s hopes were shattered. How could God go back on his promise to David? This test of their faith in God led to deep reflection on whether other interpretations of Nathan’s prophecy were possible. So there were some individuals who saw God’s promise being fulfilled by means of the people themselves carrying on the tradition of Temple worship and sacrifice, without any ruling king. They saw themselves as being a priestly people, a kingly people, God’s holy people.
Others maintained that the promise would be fulfilled by a Messiah, an anointed one, a descendent of King David, who would restore Israel to a position of prestige once more among the nations. In the light of Christ’s coming, we are inclined to look back and see how prophetic were these our ancestors in faith, and yet in ways how mistaken also they were. For most of them God’s plan of redemption for the whole world was never grasped. Before we begin to feel superior in any way, we should ask ourselves what the significance of Advent is for us, what are our expectations, what are we looking forward to. We might say that we are waiting for the coming of Christ, but surely Christ is here already. Yes, indeed, but for us, as well, he is here in a hidden way. We too are being asked, as were the Jews, to make an act of deeper faith, to make God present in a more compelling way in our everyday lives.
Our Solitary Boast
The emancipated young woman of the Western world might well ponder the plight of her veiled sisters in the Arab world and wonder why. Or she might reflect upon the vast female labour force of the Dark Continent. The sari-clad Hindu girl may personify the mysteries of the East but there is nothing mysterious about her status in the Indian sub-continent. The “inscrutable Asians” might divulge little, but there is nothing secret about the traditional roles assigned to their women-folk. The high-flying, fast driving, loose-living girl is a phenomenon unique to the West. Her liberal world was fashioned out of christendom. It is deeply permeated with its ethos. If women are less discriminated against in this culture than elsewhere, perhaps we should look to the Christian religion for an explanation. Women who have fought long and hard to win a modicum of civil liberties for their sex in the teeth of a hostile church, can hardly be expected to warm to the notion that their emancipation has Christian roots.
Mary has played a unique role in civilising Western society. When men were compelled to honour Mary as the mother of their God, they learned thereby to respect their own mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. The cult of Mary may have suffered at the hands of a patriarchal church, but there is no escaping the implications of the Annunciation. Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” The miraculous Madonna, so beloved by the Latins, or the anaemic, willowy, plaster statue that filled so many niches in our childhood, scarcely do justice to the sturdy peasant girl chosen to play such an awesome part in the salvation of humanity. Artists have not often been kind to her, obliterating the glories of her womanhood Out of an exaggerated reverence for her holiness.
The spare lines drawn by the gospel artist are the only authentic expression we have of her. Our earliest picture comes from Luke and the person outlined there bears little resemblance to the figure that has been foisted on us for centuries. She is not seated in her boudoir deep in contemplation, only to be disturbed by the fluttering of an angel’s wings against her latticed window. More likely, she was bent over a washing tub or a cooking pot, like any other teenage girl of her class, when God’s message reached her. Fear gripped her at the prospect of an unmarried pregnancy. The only bells that accompanied the first Angelus were bells of alarm. She was deeply disturbed. It could not have been easy for her to accept conception in such exotic terms. It would have been well-nigh impossible for others – even those who loved her most – to accept such an explanation of her pregnancy. Tongues would wag in Nazareth. Her engagement to Joseph seemed certain to be broken. It was a frightening prospect for a girl still in her teens. The loneliest part of all was that there was nobody to whom she could confide her terrible secret. Then, as later, she was left alone to ponder all these things in her heart. For all his fine words, the angel had placed a terrible responsibility on such young shoulders. Her answer to his unprecedented challenge was extraordinarily courageous, a blind leap in the dark: “Let what you have said be done to me.”
Choosing a Special Person
If you were to ask a married couple how they came to fall in love, or if you asked two good friends how they came to be friends, they may have difficulty answering your question. They might say something like, “It just happened.” In one sense that may be true. In another sense it didn’t just happen. If two people are in a significant relationship with each other, be it marriage or friendship, it is because they have chosen each other.
Why does someone choose one person rather than another as a future spouse or friend? Having made that choice of the other, why might the other then reciprocate? Why does someone choose to share something of his or her life with someone else, and vice versa? There we are into the mystery of human freedom, human preference. The more significant relationships in life cannot be forced. Favour is freely bestowed by one person on another; that other person freely receives what is bestowed and freely reciprocates, and a new relationship is born. There is an element of mystery about all that.
If there is a mysterious quality to the relationship of one human being with another, that is even truer of the relationship between God and ourselves. Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of his Son? Why this particular woman in this particular small village at this particular time of human history? We are dealing here with the mysterious freedom and preference of God. Yet, there is a difference between God’s choice of Mary and the choice any one of us might make of another. When any one of us chooses another to love or to befriend, there is always, of necessity, an exclusive element to that choice. We choose this person rather than any number of others. Although we choose several people in the course of our lives in each case our choice of one excludes others.
God’s choice of Mary was not exclusive in that sense. When God chose Mary, he was choosing all of us. He chose Mary for all our sakes. God chose her to carry God’s Son on behalf of us all, because her future child was God’s gift to us all. That is why how Mary responded to God’s choice of her was not just a matter that concerned herself. It concerned us all. We all had a vested interest in how she responded. Her response would also be our response. In a sense we looked to her to make an appropriate response on behalf of us all to God’s choice of us.
The good news is that Mary did not let us down. Although initially disturbed and then perplexed by God’s choice of her, she eventually surrendered fully to that mysterious choice of God. Having been graced in this mysterious way, she responded wholeheartedly, “Let it be to me according to your word.” God freely chose her, and she in turn chose to place her freedom at God’s service. God’s choice of Mary, and Mary’s choice of God in response had the most wonderful consequences for all of us. She went on to sing, “the Almighty has done great things for me.” But, in reality, because of her response to God’s choice, we can all sing, “the Almighty has done great things for us.” We have all been graced through Mary’s response to God’s choice of her.
The gospel gives us the backdrop to the birth of Jesus, when his corning is announced, and how Mary was involved in making that possible.
In all of my Sunday reflections I stress how important our own personal response is. Today’s gospel highlights that in a real way, as the angel awaits the reply from Mary. It is as if God is on stand-by, awaiting her answer, before he puts in train the whole process of our salvation. If I can put myself in Mary’s place in today’s gospel, I begin to get a much clearer idea of how God sees me in the process of my own salvation. The invitation from God has RSVP written clearly on it.
This is a central gospel in that, in a unique way, it lets us into the mind of God. He chooses, he calls, he awaits our response. If we do accept, we do so because he guarantees us whatever it takes to answer the call. Mary asked “How can this happen?” and she was told it would happen through the power of God, and “nothing is impossible with God.” It is important to remember that with the call comes the grace to answer that call.
Mary said “yes.” She knew her place before God. She was his handmaid, his servant. Humility is nothing more than accepting things as they really are. Mary knew she couldn’t do it, but, with God’s power working through her, she could do anything. Elizabeth would later say to Mary, “All these things happened because you believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled.” Faith is a response to love. If I am convinced of the total love of an infinite God, I will trust him in everything.
Some years ago I was sitting by the bed of an elderly lady who was troubled because she couldn’t pray. I invited her to talk to me about it. She spoke at great length about how she kept falling asleep, how she was disappointed at not being able to complete a rosary, and how her mind wandered all over the place when she watched the Mass on television, which was the only way of joining in the Eucharist within her limits at that time. I continued to encourage her to speak, as she told me how important prayer had always been in her life, and how it had sustained her throughout each day. She spoke of how good God had been to her, and how she felt ungrateful now through .her inability to give him proper time and attention in her day. After listening for some time, I made a suggestion to her. I told her that what she said was beautiful and was, indeed, a prayer. I stood up from the chair, and I asked her to imagine that Jesus was now sitting in the chair. As I left the room, I asked her to keep talking to him just as she had spoken to me. Each day I called after that, I always had a smile, as she told how she spoke quietly to the chair even during her waking hours of the night, and how she was certain that Jesus was there. Every single care, worry, and guilt was poured out in those prayers, and she always felt that they were taken care of; that she was being listened to. When the books and the beads, and all the other props of structure had been removed, it was just down to herself and Jesus, and she was delighted at how simple it all was. Very soon she got to the stage where she was sure that he was answering, and she was able to spend time listening to him. It was a wonderful experience for her, and a touching experience for me.
Supposing you were to replace Jesus in the chair with the angel of today’s gospel, how do you think your prayer might go?
First Reading: Second Book of 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 they 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.
Second Reading: Epistle to the 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.