Sunday Scripture: Fourth Sunday in Advent (Year C).





Welcome to this, the twenty-second of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Humble Paradox of the Divine Design

Inside the Church of the Visitation, this mural is of Elizabeth greeting Mary. This beautiful church is situated at Ain Karim in Jerusalem. It's really a lovely part of Jerusalem,  tradition attributes its construction to Empress Helena of Constantinople, Constantine I's mother, who identified the site as the home of Zechariah and the place where he and Elizabeth hid from Herod's soldiers.

  • First Reading: Micah 5:1-4
  • Psalm 79:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Response v. 4.
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10.
  • Gospel: Luke 1:39-44.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

Micah is was a contemporary of Isaiah, prophesying in around 740—701 B.C. He came from the town of Moresheth in southwestern Judah, west of Hebron. His name is an abbreviation, like the name Michael, for "Who is like God?"

This book contains one of my favourite Scripture quotes, one that I have treasured since I was a young man;
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, 
and to walk humbly with your God?
—Micah 6:8
In this little quote, we have the fullness of the Law. It constitutes the answer to the ultimate question of what YHWH desires, and the answer is internal conversion and a proper attitude of spirit, just as the prophets proclaimed (cf. Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-27; Hos 6:4-6; Jer 6:16-20; 7: 21-24).
This week: The ruler from Bethlehem brings peace: the somber words of 4:9, 14 are now dispelled by the announcement of a new David coming to restore his kingship. The Hebrew text identifies the point of origin for this as Bethlehem Ephrathah. The name 'Bethlehem' may have been added to the text as a later explanatory gloss. Ephrathah is both a clan name and a place name. The identification of the name with Bethlehem is probably from the presence of the clan of Ephrah in Bethlehem. This was a Judahite clan, at least by adoption and was the the clan to which Jesse belonged (1 Samuel 17:12). Bethlehem is the city of Jesse and of his son David, who was chosen to be king of the twelve tribes of Israel. Matt 2:5-6 shows how this text came to be interpreted. The promised Messiah, whose origin is pronounced to be "from ever" is linked to the promises of God and, because of the final context of the book, to the Temple (see 4:7).

Verse 3 is of particular importance when seen in terms of 4:9—10. The imagery of Exile and a woman in travail recalls Jeremiah's frequent use of this theme to describe the anguish of Jerusalem (Jer 4:31; 6:24, etc). The Jewish community (4:10: 'daughter of Zion') would, in some sense, give birth to the Messiah through the pangs of oppression (cf. Is 66:7—9). Understanding this shows us how the Church understood Mary, the eschatological daughter of Zion, as Mother of the Messiah and Mother of the Church. There is also an association with Is 7:14 and the Mother of Emmanuel. Through the birth of her child she brings to an end a period of distress and by giving birth to the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6; Mi 5:4), she is most intimately associated with his work.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.


The Letter to The Hebrews, claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.
Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

This week: Hebrews takes up the theme from Micah of what YHWH desires. The Greek version of Psalm 40: 6-8 is cited to illustrate the inability of the Old Testament Sacrifices to placate God, and to state that it is the obedient will of Christ which has pleased God and brought about the reconciliation between God and the people in Christ's sacrifice. It is by making and expressing this willingness that Christ has actually undone the old order and inaugurated the new one. The Psalmist considers the human body was created in order to be offered in obedience to the will of God. It is Jesus who lives out the psalm to the utmost because His sinless life as a man, totally conformed to the divine will, made the priestly offering of his body and blood the perfect sacrifice that supersedes all others (Heb 9:12; 10:10; CCC 614, 2100).


The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a “consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic”[1]. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”[2]. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work [3]. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly [4]. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 [5]

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner [6], for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff [7]!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence[8] represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion [9]. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles [10] and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:
“Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God”[11]
Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles [12]. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians [13]. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles [14].

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission [15]. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation” [16]; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition [17]. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.) [18]. The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians [19]. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth [20]. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

Footnotes.

[1] Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (SBLMS, Montana, 1974) p.1.
[2] Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1971) p.39.
[3] Brown, R., An Introduction to the New Testament, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.225.
[4] Ibid, p.226.
[5] Ibid p.264.
[6] Acts 1:3.
[7] Luke 9:3.
[8] Luke 23.
[9] Brown, R., op. Cit., (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271-2.
[10] Hastings, A., Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, (William Clowes & Sons, London, 1958) p.176.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid p.183.
[13] Brown, R., op. Cit.,, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271.
[14] Ibid p.272.
[15] Ibid, p.270.
[16] Talbert, C.H., Ibid, p.141.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Brown, R., Ibid, p.270.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1968) p.150. 

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: I could write a lot about the theology of the Visitation! The Visitation constituted a journey to, in view of the determination 'hill country', Ain Karim, which is a neighbourhood of Jerusalem, 5 miles west of the city. I visited when I was in the Holy Land a couple of years ago.
The View From the Church of the Visitation in Ain Karim, Jerusalem.
The 'haste' of Mary was inspired by friendship and charity; the journey would have taken some four days. At Mary's greeting Elizabeth felt the infant move in her womb, an experience which parallels that of Rebekah in Genesis 25. Both Luke and the Greek OT use the same verb (σκιρταω. Transliterated: skirtao. Pronunciation: skeer-tah'-o) to describe children leaping or stirring in the womb. As Rebekah's experience signalled the preeminence of Jacob over his older brother Esau, so the similar experience of Elizabeth is a sign that Jesus would be greater than His older cousin John (3:16; Jn 3:27-30).

Elizabeth is enlightened with the prophetic spirit and is aware of Mary's secret, that is, that she is the Mother her 'Lord' i.e. of the Messiah. This is why she is 'blessed among women', a hebraism (cf. Jdt 13:18) meaning more blessed than all women. These are the words once spoken to Jael and Judith in the OT (Judg 5:24-27) who were blessed for their heroic faith and courage in warding off enemy armies hostile to Israel. Mary will follow in their footsteps bearing the Saviour who crushes sin, death and the devil (Gen 3:15; 1 Jn 3:8; CCC 64, 489). Elizabeth's expression of unworthiness at the single honour of this visit echoes that of David in the presence of the Ark of YHWH (2 Sm 6:9).

Drawing them all together...

What beautiful Scripture readings we have to ponder this week. There really is so much to consider, I feel a little daunted at the prospect of getting anything meaningful down. Just reading through them there and reflecting on the history and context fills me with awe. I love making those little special links, like in the First Reading between verse 3 and the 'daughter of Zion' imagery, or the Ark of the Covenant connection in the Gospel.

One cannot help but feel excited and that all the texts burgeon with Advent sentiment. Indeed this week's readings really bring us to the threshold of the mystery and the joy of Christmas. All the themes of our faith have been considered as we prepare to let Jesus into out lives. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, and the opening collect tells us everything: in the joy of Jesus' birth lie the seeds of His suffering that will ultimately lead us to triumph: Incarnation is the beginning of Atonement.

Advent is a time for prophecy, for looking back to the signs and the symbols that foretold Jesus' coming. John the Baptist was His herald, and he sums up all the beauty and power of the Law and the Prophets as we saw last week. This week, we see how Mary is the means, the channel through which God actually comes into our midst. The brief story of the Visitation, an account of loving-kindness and joy, of love shared, is over-shadowed and transfigured by the power of the Spirit to become a moment of decisive prophecy. Elizabeth sums up the situation: Mary is blessed because of the role she plays in God's purposes. She willingly agrees to cooperate in God's plan, and so provides the tangible medium for the divine intervention. Her simplicity, her love, and her obedience, make her special, the one who brings Jesus, the Mother of the LORD. She indeed becomes, impossible as it seems, the Mother of God, the Queen Mother, the embodiment of the Daughter of Zion, the fulfilment of all prophecy. She brings forth the one spoken of from all ages, the one who is the answer to all our prayers.

This morning (I'm writing this on Wednesday 19th December 2012), the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI gave his last audience of this year and the essence of his reflection was that the poverty of a Child who is born expresses that silent force of truth and love which overcome the tumult of the powers in the world.

The Holy Father says that in order to grasp the meaning of the Lord's coming among us we must make our own the same attentive attitude that Mary had in listening to the announcement of the Angel and, like Mary, we must fling our doors open to the Creator. It is then necessary to submit freely “to the words received, to the divine will in the obedience of faith”; even when we find ourselves facing the arcane mystery and when words “are difficult, almost impossible to accept”.

Further, the right attitude is that communicated by Mary and by her husband Joseph, demonstrated in their acceptance of Jesus' mysterious answer to them when they sought him anxiously and found him deep in conversation with the teachers in the Temple: “How is it that you sought me”, the Pope said, citing Luke's Gospel, “did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”.

Therefore “the profound humility of the obedient faith of Mary who welcomes within her even what she does not understand in God's action, letting it be God who opens her mind and heart”, is what Benedict XVI proposes to people today for celebrating and living the Christmas festivities with greater awareness. And he also wanted to recall that “the glory of God is not expressed in the triumph and power of a king, it does not shine out in a famous city or a sumptuous palace”, but is revealed “in the very poverty of a Child”.

Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

Some more Pictures from Ain Karim for your enjoyment:











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