Reflections for 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38
Homily starter Anecdote 1) “Mary did you know?” One of the most beautiful of the modern Christmas songs was written by a man who is best known, perhaps, as a comedian. His name is Mark Lowry. Lowry is also a musician of some note. He performed for many years with the Gaither Vocal band. In 1984 he was asked to pen some words for his local church choir, and he wrote a poem that began like this, “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” A few years later guitarist Buddy Greene added a perfectly matching tune and a wonderful song was born. “Mary, did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? Mary, did you know when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God!” Each of the little couplets touches the heart in a wonderful way. “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?” The song’s been around now for nearly two decades. Listen for it on the radio. The most popular version is sung by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd. Mary, did you know . . . ? How could Mary know what was happening to her when the angel Gabriel came to her long ago? Only Luke tells this story, and we have it in today’s Gospel. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/).
Introduction: Today’s readings focus on the circumstances leading up to the first coming of Jesus, the event which sets the pattern for his coming to us now and at the end of time. The Gospel stresses the key role of Mary in the work of our salvation. In addition, today’s Scripture texts describe God’s promise to David and its fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of David. They also tell us that God's preparation for the coming of Jesus was full of surprises.
Scripture lessons summarized: The unfolding of God's plan of salvation though history has contained many surprises. The first reading surprises us by telling of God’s promise to David that he would have a long line of royal descendants culminating in a final King, Jesus Christ. In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 89), the Psalmist recalls all of God’s promises and surprises us, describing God’s promise to David and his descendants in terms of a Covenant. The second reading surprises us as well with Paul’s explanation of the unveiling of God's plan for human salvation through Jesus. Today’s Gospel surprises us by telling us that this final King would be born to an ordinary virgin, not by means of sexual relationship, but through the Holy Spirit, and that this Son of God, Jesus, would become a descendant of David. This would occur through Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband and the legal father of her son, as Joseph was "of the House of David." The Gospel narrative also surprises us by reminding us that God’s promise is best fulfilled not in buildings, or even in great kings like Solomon, but rather in humble souls like Mary who trusted in God’s promise.
First reading explained: The historical background: Moses had led God's people in their escape from Egypt around the year 1250 B.C. Joshua led them on an invasion of Palestine around 1220. Judges ruled them from 1200 to 1025. The last Judge, Samuel, anointed for them their first King, Saul, around 1030. David succeeded Saul in 1010. David’s first step was to capture Jerusalem from the Jebusites and make it the political capital of his kingdom. Once David had completed the building of his palace, he wanted a more beautiful house to accommodate the Ark of the Covenant representing God’s presence in the midst of His chosen people. For over 200 years, the Ark of the Covenant had been a "mobile shrine," kept in a tent so that it could be easily carried to any place to which the people moved or where Yahweh's special presence was needed. David wanted to build a special Temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark. He hoped that making Jerusalem the religious center of Israel would ensure the continued loyalty of all twelve tribes.
Though the prophet Nathan initially accepted the plan, as we heard in the first reading, he eventually returned to inform the king that Yahweh was more concerned with turning David's family into "His House" than with residing in a “house” Himself. In other words, God's presence in families is more important than is His presence in buildings. That is why the Lord spoke to David through his prophet Nathan and promised him a line of kingly succession. God said that David was not to build a house for God; rather God would build a” House” for David. !” And so He did. The Son of God, born of David’s lineage, is that house. The kingly line of David’s lineage finds its everlasting fulfillment in Christ. God kept His promise by establishing the family of David securely on the throne of Israel forever. God allowed the descendants of David to serve as kings of Israel in unbroken succession. But in the 6th century BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah and ended the succession of Davidic kings, prompting Israel to look for a different kind of fulfillment of God's promise to David. In other words, Israel began to look for the Messiah, a descendant of David who would come at the end of time to eradicate evil from the world. We find the beginning of the fulfillment of this hope in today’s Gospel where the angel tells Mary that the son she is about to conceive will sit on "the throne of his father David, and reign over the house of Jacob forever" (Lk. 1: 32-33). The text reminds us that we are not on earth to do things for God, but to reflect and build on what God is doing for us.
Second Reading, explained: Since St. Paul had not founded the Church of Rome nor visited it earlier, his letter to the Romans was a kind of introduction of himself to the Christians in Rome and a partial synthesis of his theology. The section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans which we read today is a prayer praising God for revealing through the Gospels, "the mystery kept secret for long ages,” to all nations. In other words, God worked through His chosen people in the past, and He can and will work in and through the Gentiles through the risen Jesus. The Church has selected this prayer in the final week of our preparation for Christmas to remind us of the sublime facts commemorated at Christmas, namely, how, in becoming man, Christ elevated our nature by uniting it with his own Divine nature and made us adopted children of God with a claim to eternal life and the possibility of sharing in God's Kingdom forever.
Exegesis: The context: Luke was a Gentile converted by St. Paul at Troas about AD 50. Later, he became a fellow-worker with Paul in spreading the Faith. Luke's Gentile Christian community lived a generation or more later than the apostles, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. Since they were not Jews, Luke had to explain to them how Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jews by God through the prophets. Luke’s account also explains how the Messiah had his human origin while retaining his Divine nature. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows how Jesus continued to operate among his apostles and the early Church. Today’s narrative of the infancy of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel was intended to teach the Gentile converts their Christian heritage and to keep them focused on their new religion’s mission. This “Annunciation" of the birth of Jesus also established Jesus in good-standing among the Jews, since King David, presented as Jesus’ ancestor, was the most revered early King and the original Messiah (literally, "anointed as king" and earthly savior of the nation of Israel).
The unique selection of Mary and Gabriel’s unique salutation: Judaism and Christianity recognize seven archangels: Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and three others whose names are uncertain—a source of debate by theologians for centuries. Gabriel is the messenger archangel. “… a virgin engaged to a man”: in ancient Palestinian Judaism, marriage was a two-step process, beginning with a ceremony of betrothal (generally when the young woman was only in her early teens), and concluded a year or so later with the formal wedding ceremony, when the bride was escorted from her parents’ home to that of her new husband. Nevertheless, “betrothal” was considerably stronger than our modern term “engagement” suggests: sexual activity by either the man or the woman during this period was considered adultery (punishable by death), and if either partner died before the actual wedding, the survivor was considered as having been widowed. In the two annunciations described in Luke’s Gospel, neither Elizabeth (Zechariah's wife) nor Mary appears to be a likely candidate for motherhood. Elizabeth is too old and Mary is a virgin engaged to Joseph, of the house of David (v. 27). Joseph’s betrothal to Mary was binding, and it made Mary his legal wife. The angel's salutation to Mary, “Hail, full of grace,” reminds us of God's words to Moses at the burning bush, "I will be with you" (Ex 3:12), the angel’s salutation Gideon, "The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior" (Jgs 6:12) and the Lord's assurance to Jeremiah, "Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee" (Jer 1:8). In place of the formal Jewish salutation “shalom,” the word, “chaire,” was used, most probably because of its primary meaning: ‘Rejoice!’” “… favored one”: Luke says that Mary is perplexed by Gabriel's words, "Rejoice, blessed one!"(Greek), translated as “Hail, full of grace.” Mary is described as "full of grace,”: Mary is filled with God's favor and graciousness, something which she has in no way earned, but which was given as a gratuitous gift by God. Mary is told by the angel Gabriel, the messenger of God that the Lord is literally with her: She is the new Ark, a tent and temple. God is literally and physically in her, and thus she is the greater house of God promised to David.
Mary’s perplexity versus Zechariah’s doubts: Mary's question, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" is natural, very much like Zechariah's, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years" (1:18). However, the angel struck Zechariah mute for his unbelief because Zechariah asked for a sign -- tangible proof that the angel was telling the truth. Mary's question, on the other hand, springs from an understandable confusion. Mary on the other hand, simply asked for clarification. She already believed that “nothing is impossible to God,” so she listened with faith. Mary is fully aware of the significance and consequences of the angel's message. In a flash, she recognizes the new challenges that will emerge in her betrothal and the crisis into which this pregnancy could throw both families (see Dt 22:13-21 and Nm 5:11-31). That is why the angel reminds Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God." He will "empower" her ("the spirit will come upon you") and "protect" her ("overshadow you"), two duties of a Middle Eastern husband.
The Virgin Birth: The Apostles' Creed includes two very important phrases describing the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Creed declares two specific statements about God becoming human. Statement One: He ". . . was conceived by the Holy Spirit . . . " Statement Two: He was " . . . born of the Virgin Mary . . . " In Luke’s Annunciation scene, we are face-to-face with one of the major doctrines of the Christian Faith – the Virgin Birth. There are two great reasons for accepting this dogma: (1) The clear literal meaning of this passage in Luke and Mt 1:18-25, is that Jesus was to be born of Mary without a human father. (2) It is natural to argue that if Jesus was, as we believe, a very special Person, he would have a special entry into the world, and since this conception is the work of God's direct power, Mary's virginity is unaffected as is her integrity before her natural husband. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (v. 35). God is physical in Mary, conceived as human, her very flesh, by the power of the Most High, making Mary the temple, the greater house promised to David. The word "overshadow" is also used at the Transfiguration (9:34) and in a story of Peter's healing ministry (Acts 5:15). In all these places the verb clearly refers to Divine presence and power. “Overshadowing” is a way in which God acts, mysteriously but truly, in a person’s life. The angel makes it clear that the child "will be holy" and "will be called Son of God" (v. 35). The word "virgin" appears three times in this passage, which shows that Luke clearly intends to emphasize Mary's sexual purity as seen in Jesus’ virgin birth.
Son of David and Son of God: The child Mary would bear would not only be a distant grandson of David -- he would be God's own Son. "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… " How will Jesus inherit the throne of David? It did not happen in his earthly lifetime. It happened in his death and resurrection. Mary is told by the angel Gabriel, the messenger of God, that the Lord is with her. Much more intimate than God’s presence to David, the Lord is literally with her. On several occasions, Luke uses the phrase " Most High" to refer to God (1:76; Acts 7:48; 16:17), so that "Son of the Most High" means "Son of God." Luke uses this title several times to refer to Jesus (1:35; 22:70; Acts 9:20). ".... “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (vv. 32b-33). This is a fulfillment of the promise that God made to David, who wanted to build a Temple for God as described in today’s first reading. God forbade David to build the Temple, but said, "The Lord will make you a House... I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a House for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (2 Sm 7:11-13). Knowing that David's son, Solomon, built a Temple, it is natural to assume that the offspring who "shall build a house," refers directly to Solomon. However, the complete fulfillment of the promise was not to be found in Solomon but in Jesus, since Solomon built a Temple that stood for only 379 years (966 BC – August, 578 BC), whereas Christ will build "a House not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor 5:1). For Jesus to be the” Son of David” in a real sense—for the royal blood to flow in His veins—it was necessary that His mother be personally descended from the family of that ruler, because Jesus had no father according to the flesh. St. Paul implies it in Romans 1:3; II Timothy 2:8) and Hebrews 7:14. St. Ignatius of Antioch, St Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, Tatian, Tertullian and subsequent writers represent Mary’s Davidic origin with all desirable clearness. Seventeen verses in the New Testament describe Jesus as the “son of David.” Christ (the Messiah) was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the seed of David (2 Samuel 7:12–16). Jesus is the promised Messiah, which means He had to be of the lineage of David. Matthew 1 gives the genealogical proof that Jesus, in His humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through Joseph, Jesus’ legal father. The genealogy in Luke 3 traces Jesus’ lineage through His mother, Mary. Jesus is a descendant of David by adoption through Joseph and by blood through Mary. “As to his earthly life [Christ Jesus] was a descendant of David” (Romans 1:3).
Primarily, the title “Son of David” is more than a statement of physical genealogy. It is a Messianic title. When people referred to Jesus as the Son of David, they meant that He was the long-awaited Deliverer, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
“For nothing will be impossible with God.” It is ironic that Zechariah, who asked for a sign, was punished (1:20), while Mary, who did not ask for a sign, was given one. If Mary wanted to know how she could bear a son while remaining a virgin, she need only to look to her kinswoman Elizabeth who, despite her age, was pregnant, Gabriel tells her. If God could create new life in old woman, He could surely do the same in a young virgin. “For nothing will be impossible with God" (v. 37). Again, Luke adopts O.T. language. When the Lord announced the impending birth of Isaac, Sarah laughed. The Lord responded by saying, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" (Gn 18:14 -- see also Jesus' comment at Luke 18:27). This is truly Gospel – Good News – for those of us who find ourselves in impossible situations. As we walk with the Lord, however, no situation is beyond redemption.
“May it be done to me according to your word.” Mary does not require confirmation, but responds in Faith. She agrees to carry out the Word Gabriel has addressed to her. Her response again calls forth OT language -- Abraham's "Here I am" (Gn 22:1) -- Isaiah's "Here am I, send me" (Is 6:8) -- Hannah's "Think kindly of your maidservant" (1 Sm 1:18) -- Samuel's "Here I am" (1 Sm 3:4). Raymond Brown says “Mary's response qualifies her as Jesus' first disciple. Subsequent references to her are consistent with this pattern (Luke 1:45ff; 8:19-21; 11:27-28; Acts 1:14). Her humble acquiescence to the will of God commends itself to every believer: “’Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me.’" Mary is thus presented as the perfect disciple. Those who find out what God wants of them and accept His message as Mary did are Jesus' true followers. Those who only hear the Word but never put it into action are deceiving themselves. Christian Faith is a matter of continually making Jesus a part of our lives.
The significance of Mary’s yes: Jesus' earthly existence begins with Mary’s “Yes” in today's account of the Annunciation. Although we normally regard the birth of Jesus as the beginning of God's presence among us, the Church teaches that the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb by the power of the Holy Spirit took place at the moment that Mary agreed to be the mother of Jesus. If Mary had said “No,” instead of “Yes,” history might have been different – although we know that God's plans would not have been frustrated. Mary's “Yes,” changed the world. Her obedience to God's call changed the lives of all of us. How many times have we said “No,” to God? How different would things be – for us and for others – if we had said “Yes,” to him more often? “The Blessed Virgin Mary was the first human person who could say of Jesus, “This is my body, this is my blood.” She was the first altar of the Incarnation’s mystery. Her body a fitting temple, she was the prime analogate for those who know and live the mysteries of transubstantiation. Was she not, then, the first priest, the first minister of the sacrament of the real presence?” (Fr. Kavanaugh).
The frightening consequences of Mary’s “Yes”: Mary's choice was no easy one. As a teenage girl, betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, she was being asked to become pregnant by a Heavenly Source. Betrothal was regarded as a full commitment to one's future spouse, and for such a girl to lose her virginity was tantamount to adultery, a sin punishable by death.
Life messages: 1) We need to say a courageous and generous “Yes” to God as Mary did. True obedience comes from a free choice made in the light of what is true and good. It often requires a great deal of courage, because it can involve going against the tide of social expectations. True obedience also aims at putting oneself at the service of something/Someone that is greater than oneself by accepting what God clearly wants us to do or what He wants to do through us. Jesus' own moment of greatness, like his Mother’s, came when he said “Yes,” to his Father in Gethsemane, and Jesus' own obedience is our model. Will we surrender to God and allow God to do what, from our human point of view, seems impossible? Will we surrender our agenda, our will and our kingdom to God and allow God’s agenda, will and Kingdom become a reality for and through us? It is by saying, with Jesus and Mary, a wholehearted and totally unconditional “Yes,” to God that Jesus will be re-born in me or maybe even born in me for the first time. By my saying “yes,” Jesus will be born or reborn in others too.
2) We need to try to learn God’s plan for our lives: The Good News in today’s Scripture message is not only that God is making provision for the salvation of His people, but also that He has a plan for each individual person. Just as God called Mary, He calls every mother to raise her child in the awareness of God’s nurturing presence, His unconditional love and His guiding commandments. In many cases, our work for God seems rather ordinary, but each ordinary task which we carry out fits into God's plan in ways that we cannot yet understand. God desire not the skill of our hands and talents alone, but the love of our hearts. The Babe in the Manger reminds us of what God has done and is still doing for us. What are we doing in return? Let us show our gratitude to God by living as true followers of Christ: “Behold, here I am Lord, your humble and grateful servant. Let it be done to me according to Your word.” St. Francis said, "We are the mother of Christ when we carry him in our heart… and we give birth to him through our holy works which ought to shine on others by our example.” (Fr. Antony Kadavil).