23Dec 23 December 2012. 4th Sunday in Advent

Mic 5:2-5. Salvation would come from insignificant  Bethlehem – to unite the nation under God.

Heb 10:5-10. Only Christ, our supreme High Priest, can effect reconciliation between us and God.

Lk 1:39-45. Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith and recognises the unique child that she carries within her.

For a more detailed background to the Sunday readings I warmly recommend Fr. Kieran O’Mahony’s input at http://www.tarsus.ie/resources/Advent4C13.pdf — which is summarised at the end of this posting. If I get a response to this from our readers, I would regularly include a link to that source, with Kieran’s gracious permission (http://www.tarsus.ie/page6/index.html).

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5

The Lord says this: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-44

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

The Madonna

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 on the last Sunday before Christmas the Gospel is always about Mary, the mother. This year the Gospel is the story of the visit of Mary to her cousin, Elizabeth.

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, though many Lutherans seem unaware of this.

All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, like to meditate on the Magnificat, a prayerful song that brims over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary’s cry for justice: He has filled the hungry with good things/ And sent the rich away empty. This is Mary who inspires us to challenge injustice.

The Visitation

The two pregnant women in our Gospel today are very different in age, yet both full of joy and concern for each other. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth because of her advanced age and the attendant dangers of so late a pregnancy. This visit is a clear sign of Mary’s generosity and goodness. Through the light of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognised Mary’s privilege as the mother of Christ. She greets her in the words we are so familiar with in the Hail Mary. And Mary responds in the equally familiar words of the Magnificat.

These two great women understand the miracle of conception and birth. But in each case there was a direct intervention of God in a truly exceptional way. The Gospel tells us that both were informed of this fact by the words of an angel-they each had a direct message from God telling them so.

But God uses the extraordinary to highlight the significance of the ordinary. The fact that these two women had this extraordinary intervention only demonstrates that our own lives too are a gift of God-what you could call an ordinary intervention if you like. It is from this understanding that the Church takes its position on all life issues.

At particular moments we might recognise the hand of God in our lives. Maybe it was when we felt we had a priestly or religious vocation or when we finally decided on our partner in marriage. Maybe it was in the birth of a child, a change in job circumstances, or the death of a parent. Maybe it was a moment in prayer, the grace of a sacrament, advice in the confessional, wise words from a friend or relative at a critical moment.

God continues to work with us and for us. He takes the long view and there are periods of seeming barrenness, seeming aloneness. But these are all part of that gestation period which is life on earth. We were born into this world and we will be reborn into eternal life.

Every now and then like John the Baptist we leap in this womb of ours, which is our life on earth. Every now and then we recognise God’s presence, just as John recognised Jesus’ presence, and we leap with joy. But life is constantly moving on and God is always with us. He caused us to come into being, he sustains and feeds us, and he will welcome us into life eternal. We celebrate a birth at Christmas — a birth, a life, a death and a resurrection.

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More detailed commentary, from Kieran O’Mahony’s Sunday feature on www.Tarsus.

Your words are spirit, Lord, and they are life Sunday 23 December 2012 (Advent4C) Micah 5:1-4 (2-5); Ps 80 (79); Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44
Blessed are you among women Luke 1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Initial Observations

The lectionary offers the short form of the story, but the Magnificat is equally part of it and therefore is restored here. This vignette, unique to Luke, brings the two prophets together in their respective mothers’ wombs. As such it forms part of Luke’s theology that John and Jesus are related, on the level of the history of salvation, and at the same time the second prophet, Jesus, is greater than the first, John. This distinction is already made clear in the various things which have been already about each child (see the annunciations to Zechariah and to Mary) and now, John, an unconscious child, signals the arrival of the Messiah. The passage which follows this greeting by Elizabeth is one of the most subversive in the New Testament, Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat. How historical these stories might be can be gauged from a moment later in the Gospel according to Luke: The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18–23) And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:56). That Mary stays three months and then departs is a bit odd (six and three being nine) but the presence of Mary at the birth of John would have complicated the tableaux unnecessarily and served no purpose.

Old Testament Background

Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. (Deut 28:4) Then Uzziah said to her, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. (Jdt 13:18—not wholly inappropriate given the political nature of the Magnificat which follows!)

What kind of writing is this?

This single scene makes sense only against the background of Luke 1-2 seen as a whole. The Infancy Narrative of Luke may be seen to fall into seven very skillfully constructed tableaux, as in the chart. Each scene having three characteristics as described below. (1) Each tableau begins with a setting of the scene, whether historical or biblical. (2) Entry of chief personality/s, and in due course, their exit / a concluding statement. (3) Climax in the form of some kind of revelation (which highlights the theological significance of the scene the Angel’s message in 1, 2 and 5; an inspired canticle in 3, 4 and 6 and Jesus’ first recorded words in 7). The only “encounter” between the two sets of protagonists is the Visitation, which thereby has almost disproportionate significance.

 New Testament Foreground

There are explicit connections with the rest of the Gospel. These links are always on a thematic level; no one within the ministry seems to “remember” any of this, not even John the Baptist himself. But the theological themes anticipated her are present in the two volumes of Luke-Acts. “To fill” or “to fulfil” (Luke 1:15, 20, 23, 41, 57, 67; 2:6, 21–22, 40; 3:5; 4:21, 28; 5:7, 26; 6:11; 7:1; 9:31; 21:22, 24; 22:16; 24:44; Acts 1:16; 2:2, 4, 28; 3:10, 18; 4:8, 31; 5:3, 17, 28; 7:23, 30; 9:17, 23; 12:25; 13:9, 25, 27, 45, 52; 14:26; 19:21, 29; 24:27) Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–26; 3:16, 22; 4:1; 10:21; 11:13; 12:10, 12; Acts 1:2, 5, 8, 16; 2:4, 33, 38; 4:8, 25, 31; 5:3, 32; 6:5; 7:51, 55; 8:15, 17, 19; 9:17, 31; 10:38, 44–45, 47; 11:15– 16, 24; 13:2, 4, 9, 52; 15:8, 28; 16:6; 19:2, 6; 20:23, 28; 21:11; 28:25) Joy, rejoice (Luke 1:14, 44, 47; 10:21; Acts 2:26, 46; 16:34). Blessed (Luke 1:45; 6:20–22; 7:23; 10:23; 11:27–28; 12:37–38, 43; 14:14–15; 23:29; Acts 20:35; 26:2) At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:21–22)

St Paul

But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2:17–18) Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. (Phil 3:1) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Phil 4:4) I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. (Phil 4:10)

Brief Commentary

The two story lines of birth are brought together here. Elizabeth pronounces a brief hymn of praise and Mary a much longer one (not in the selected reading). Verse 39 The “hill country” and “Judah” are mentioned again in Luke 1:65. Verse 40 Mentioning Zechariah reminds us of the earlier epiphany to him. Verse 41 The leaping—the “quickening” of the womb—is symbolic of the arrival of salvation. For Luke’s purposes, it constitutes an acknowledge of the Messiah by the Baptist. As above, the Holy Spirit is the energy behind the project of Jesus and the proclamation of the Good News. For leaping in the womb: cf. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:21–23) Verse 42 See the OT references above. Verse 43 “My Lord” means that Jesus is already proclaimed Lord. It is by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth recognizes the moment of salvation. Verse 44 The reason for the leaping is given: joy, a key theme in Luke-Acts. Verse 45 The contrast is with Zechariah who did not believe and was struck dumb. Mary did believe and gives her great canticle before Zechariah gives his. This is a key verse for the Lukan theology of Mary as model disciple. Cf. Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; Acts 1:14. NB the omission of “in his own house” in Lk 4:24, in considerable contrast with Mk 6:4.

Pointers for Prayer

1. The greeting of Elizabeth to Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” is a joyful welcome of the child to come. Bringing new life into the world through pregnancy and birth is one of the most awesome human experiences. How have you experienced this for yourself or in someone close to you?

2. The image of the pregnant Mary going a distance to visit her cousin is a symbol of willingness to look beyond one’s own needs to the needs of others. When have you witnessed that kind of generosity in others, or have been able to act in this way yourself?

3. Mary is praised for her faith, because she believed the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled. In what ways have you experienced blessings from your faith and trust in God’s promises?