Sunday of week 4 of Advent (B)

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-11,16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

WE COME TO THE last Sunday before Christmas and the Mass readings speak about the preparations that God made for Jesus to be born among us and as one of us.

As the story is told by Luke, Mary must have been truly alarmed at the words of her unexpected visitor. In the whole passage (as in the rest of Luke’s infancy narrative) we are getting an indication of what can be expected in the Gospel which follows.

First, the incident is taking place in Nazareth, not exactly the centre of the earth, or even of Palestine. A future disciple of Jesus will be heard to say with not a little cynicism, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Truly in the eyes of the more sophisticated it was something of a backwater.

Yet this is the place God chooses to enter our world – not Rome, not Athens, nor any of the other great centres of power, culture and learning in the world of the time.

A strange salutation

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” How did Mary react to such an extraordinary salutation? The Gospel says that she was “greatly troubled” and well she might be. As a young and probably illiterate girl in an obscure little town what could the words possibly mean?

‘Full of grace’ really means that she is being showered with God’s special favours. It is more something that is happening to her than something she already has. The nature of that favour is expressed in what follows – she is to become the mother of a son whom she will call Jesus (a word which means ‘Saviour’) and who will be a King “of whose kingdom there will be no end”. What an extraordinary thing to be told!

What really disturbs Mary is that, although she is already betrothed to Joseph, she is not yet fully married to him. In other words she is not having conjugal relations with him as his wife and so how, in the normal course of events, can she possibly become a mother?

It will happen because the conception will be the work of God, the “overshadowing of the Spirit”, so that the child who is born will be, in a very special sense, the Son of God. He will also, of course, be fully the son of Mary. In this way we have the deep theological mystery of the Incarnation expressed in the language of a story that even the simplest can follow. (In all of the Gospel and especially in this infancy part we have to be careful about being too literal in our reading.)

Jesus will be at the same time someone who is fully divine and fully human. Jesus will be the unique bridge between God and his creation. He will be a human person “like us in all things but sin”. He will also, through his whole life, his words and actions, be the “splendour of the Father”.

Paradoxically, the divine in Jesus will appear in the finest moments of his humanity: healing the sick and bringing sinners back to reconciliation with God. But it is through Mary that this becomes possible and it is this which makes her unique among women.

An earthly dwelling place for God

The First Reading from the Second Book of Samuel speaks of God asking David to make him a dwelling place worthy of him. David the king was concerned that he lived in a palace of fine cedar wood while God only had a tent, the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Eventually a magnificent temple would be built, not by David but by his son Solomon. It would be rebuilt even more magnificently by Herod the Great and, in fact, the construction was not yet finished in the lifetime of Jesus. However, the house that David was being asked to build was a different kind of house – it was the house of David, consisting of all his descendants and their subjects. “The Lord will make you a House. Your House and your sovereignty will always stand secure before me and your throne be stabled forever.”

The implication of this passage for us in today’s Mass is that Mary, who, with Joseph, was of the house of David is the new temple where God lives. A fitting place, a place of perfection without any trace of sin or evil. And, indeed, one of the titles we give to Mary in the Litany of Our Lady is “Ark of the Covenant”.

Later on, Paul will remind Christians that each one of them is now a temple of God, of the Spirit of Jesus. In the New Covenant there is no longer any temple building but – in the words of Paul – “you are God’s temple”, a temple of which each one is a constitutive part. The House of David continues in the Church, the Body of Christ.

As a reassurance that what seems impossible can take place, Mary is reminded that her elderly cousin, well past the age of bearing children, is going to be a mother also. She is already six months pregnant. “With God nothing will be impossible.”

True to her word

In a great leap of faith and trust in the angel’s message, Mary gives an unequivocal, an unconditional ‘Yes’. “Behold, I am the slave girl of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She had yet to learn what that ‘Yes’ would involve but it was made unconditionally and it was never withdrawn.

Through a life of trials and tribulations, of which we know surely only a fraction, right up to those terrible moments as she stood beneath the Cross and saw her only Son die in agony and shame as a public criminal, she never once withdrew that ‘Yes’.

There is clearly a message there for us. We too have been called in our own special way to give birth to Jesus in our lives and in our environment. We too have been called to say ‘Yes’, an unconditional ‘Yes’ to following Jesus. Now, as we approach the celebration of Christmas, is the time for us to renew that pledge with Mary’s help and example.

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