DECEMBER 24TH, 2017: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
"Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!"
Nathan answered the king,
"Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you."
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?'
"It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever."
Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"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 called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.
I presume we’re all doing a lot of gawking at Christmas decorations on this last day before Christmas. Places that were rather plain a couple days ago have been beautifully gussied up for our annual celebration. Of course, we’d better “look quick;” some decorations – especially the commercial ones - will be gone in less than 48 hours. That’s what happens when one gets involved only with the externals of things. Fortunately our faith revolves around internals, especially our own internals.
In a sense, David discovers this in today’s first reading. As king, he can change a lot of things. One thing he’s planning to change is the place where the Ark of the Covenant resides. Over 3,000 years ago that famous mobile shrine was housed in a tent.
That wasn’t by accident. As I just mentioned, the Ark was built to be moveable, available at a moment’s notice to be carried wherever needed. Sporting poles along each side for easy transporting, it never was intended to be “put in concrete.” Yet, until Nathan the prophet shows up, that’s precisely what David plans to do.
Nathan informs him that Yahweh’s more intent on building David and his family into a “house” than in dealing with the externals of where God’s shrine resides. Yahweh wants to change people not buildings, no matter how easy it is to measure one’s faith by the number and size of the latter.
Paul, convinced the “obedience of faith” is why Jesus originally came among us, certainly didn’t have buildings in mind when he ended his letter to the Romans with today’s well-known doxology. The faith of the risen Jesus revolves around how we remake ourselves, not our physical environment.
No gospel person, except Jesus, does this better than Mary of Nazareth. Through the centuries we’ve created apocryphal gospels that have made her a saint from birth, and even proclaimed doctrines which have her immaculately conceived. Yet our evangelists never attach such a pre-existing personality to her. Luke gives her just one unique characteristic: she hears God’s word and carries it out.
That characteristic doesn’t seem to have been something she perfectly had from her conception. I presume, like all of us, she had to grow into such a frame of mind. But she certainly developed that quality deeply enough that she was open to God working in her life even in the unique situation of discovering she was virginally pregnant.
Of course, we presume after Gabriel’s visit, who wouldn’t do what God wanted? She didn’t have a choice.
Just one problem: I don’t know any Scripture scholar who takes angelic annunciations literally. Every serious student of Scripture realizes angelic encounters are literary devices which our sacred authors employ to help us understand the meaning of certain events. Annunciations are for our sake, not for the sake of the biblical people who receive them.
We presume it took the historical Mary – and Joseph - a long time to understand her pregnancy’s significance. The actual realization of that event most probably didn’t happen until years down the road. Perhaps only after Jesus’ resurrection! (In the meantime, I can only imagine the pair’s table talk!)
It’s easy to focus on externals; much more difficult and complicated to alter what’s down deep inside us. Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry taught us that faith revolves around the latter. Nothing else is worth our time and effort.
The late Cardinal John Wright once asked, “What would happen if we simultaneously destroyed every church-owned building? What would we do? What would become of our faith?”
At that point we might actually discover in what listening to God’s word and carrying it out really consists. If nothing else, it would certainly hasten the process.