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DECEMBER 18, 2011: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

II Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a-16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Paul sets the theme for today's readings. The Apostle ends his letter to the Romans by thanking God for letting him and "all the nations" in on a "secret." By imitating Jesus' dying and rising one not only finds true fulfillment in life, but will also inherit eternal life. This is "the mystery kept secret for long ages ...."

One of the deepest dimensions of biblical faith is the conviction that there's always "more out there" than we can perceive right here and now. Mysterious things are not only happening, somehow, we're part of them.

David's memorable conversation with the prophet Nathan demonstrates the point. The king's concerned to fulfill his obligation to take care of the ark of God: the mobile shrine which symbolizes the presence of Yahweh among Yahweh's people. Unlike most nations in the ancient Middle-East, Israel has no house - no temple - for its God. "Here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent."

The irony of the king's determination to build Yahweh a house is that Yahweh is planning to build David a house - a family dynasty. The prophet announces, "Yahweh will establish a house for you." Not a building to live in, but descendants who will be on the Jewish throne for many generations. "When your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I (Yahweh) will raise up your heir after you . . . And I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."

Like all people of biblical faith, David learns God constantly leads us beyond the limits that faith imposes. That's why it's important to remember something the late Raymond Brown always stressed. "Biblical annunciations are narrated by the sacred authors for the sake of their readers, not for the ones receiving the annunciation." Along with other scholars, Fr. Brown was convinced such passages were literary devices which the writers employed to help us understand the meaning of what was happening in the text. He presumed the actual recipients of biblical annunciations only surfaced the meaning the angel supplied long after the biblical scene. In other words, though Luke tells us today - at the beginning of his gospel - who Mary's child is and will be, the historical Mary might not have discovered these things until many years later when she reflected on the implications of her son's resurrection. During his life on earth, Jesus probably was a mystery to his own mother. (Remember Mary and Joseph's anxiety when the child Jesus goes missing for three days. Obviously the source Luke employs for his lost-in-the-temple passage knows nothing of Luke's annunciation to Mary or Matthew's annunciation to Joseph.)

Like all of us, Mary could easily have had to live a lifetime in faith, constantly discovering the different directions into which God was leading her, over and over again learning how God was part of her life and deeper dimensions of the relationship she had formed with others, even her own son.

Mary would never have imagined what God had in mind for her before it actually began to unfold. At no point of her education in the faith would such a "mystery" have surfaced. It's only revealed over a period of time. That's why Luke ends his annunciation pericope with Mary's well-known statement: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." For Luke, the perfect disciple is the man or woman who first hears God's word, then carries it out. I presume God's word will come for most of us not in an angelic annunciation but in the ways God enters our everyday lives.