Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mary, Queen Mother of the Crown Prince: Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent


The Fourth Sunday of Advent marks a switch in focus from John the Baptist (on the previous two Sundays) to the events immediately leading up to the birth of Christ.

The Readings for this Sunday focus on Jesus’ royalty: his descent from the line of Davidic kings.  As we will see, this royal status also accrued to his mother Mary, and this is the basis for the practice of Marian veneration in the Catholic Church.  In fact, the first instance of Marian veneration by another human being takes place in this Sunday’s Gospel.

1. Our First Reading is from the prophet Micah, 5:1-4a:

Thus says the LORD:
You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.

Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne,
and the rest of his kindred shall return
to the children of Israel.
He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the LORD,
in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
and they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth;
he shall be peace.

The prophet Micah ministered in the second half of the eighth century BC (c. 750-700 BC), roughly the same time as Isaiah.  This oracle about a coming king is similar in some ways to Isaiah 9:1-7 and 11:1-10.

“Bethlehem-Ephrathah” is the hometown and birthplace of David, the ancestral home of the ruling dynasty of Judah.  “Ephrathah” is included to distinguish this Bethlehem in Judah from other Bethlehems in different parts of Israel.  “Beth-Lehem” means “House-of-Bread,” so named because of its fertile fields.  The town of Bethlehem was the traditional site of the burial of Rachel, and was (and is) only a few miles from Jerusalem, which would become David’s capital (2 Sam 5).

[Want to see Bethlehem in person with Dr. Bergsma and Fr. Denny Gang? Click here for info.]

The language of a “ruler” who “comes forth” from “Bethlehem-Ephrathah” is a poetic way of describing an heir to the throne of David, a new king who has the Davidic bloodline.  This ruler is described in provocative ways that suggest divinity.  His origin is “miqqedem” in Hebrew, which can mean both “from the east” and “from antiquity.”  Both are suggestive, because the east was associated with the abode or the arrival of God—the Temple, for example, faced east.  Likewise, an ancient origin was a divine attribute—thus, God the Father is called “the Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:22).  This concept of ancient origin is reinforced in the next verse of our Micah passage, translated “whose origin is from of old,” but which literally reads “his origin is from days of eternity.”  This language of a Davidic ruler who has “eternal” origins could be just poetic hyperbole, but let us note that, much like Isaiah 9:6, the literal sense of this text of Micah describes a king who is both human and divine.

The following verse refers to “the rest of his kindred” returning to the “children of Israel.”  This is New Exodus language.  Note that also in Isaiah, the coming Davidic King is associated with a New Exodus for Israel (Isa 11:10-16).  We discussed the New Exodus concept in previous weeks.

This coming king will shepherd his flock; his greatness will reach the “ends of the earth”; and “he shall be peace.”  These are all Davidic images.  David was the great shepherd king (Ezek 34:23) who was promised the ends of the earth (Ps 2:8).  His son was “Shlomo” (Solomon), the “Prince of Peace” (Heb. shalom= ‘peace’).

This prophecy also makes mention of the mother of this great Davidic king: “when she who is to give birth has borne.”  The Gospel will pick up this allusion, as the pregnant Queen Mother visits her cousin.

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19:

R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
O shepherd of Israel, hearken,
from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Rouse your power,
and come to save us.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted
the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
May your help be with the man of your right hand,
with the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

We want to focus on this Psalm’s use of the title “Son of Man,” who is described as “the Man of your Right Hand” whom “you yourself made strong.”  This is none other than the Davidic King.  Both the Temple and the Royal Palace in Jerusalem faced east, and the Temple was to the north of the palace.  Thus, when the king sat on his throne, he was literally “at the right hand of God” in the Temple.  [“Right” in Hebrew was used for “south,” and “left” for “north,” all directions assuming one was facing east.]  This Psalm asks God to bless the “son of man,” who is the king of the line of David.  This is because the people knew that their fate was tied up with the fate of their king (for example, see also Lam 4:20).  To this day, it remains true: our fate is tied to the fate of Jesus Christ, the royal Son of David.  Since he has risen from the dead, those who trust in him may have confidence that they, too, will rise.

These references to the “Son of Man” in Psalm 80, along with the use of the phrase in Psalm 8:4 and Daniel 7:13, are behind Jesus use of the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself.  People think Jesus’ self-identification “Son of Man” is a reference to his humanity or some such concept, but it is not.  It is a reference to his identity as the divine-human Son of David, although this does not become clear everyone until his trial before the Sanhedrin (Matt 26:64).

3. The Second Reading is Hebrews 10:5-10:

Brothers and sisters:
When Christ came into the world, he said:
"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.'"

First he says, "Sacrifices and offerings,
holocausts and sin offerings,
you neither desired nor delighted in."
These are offered according to the law.
Then he says, "Behold, I come to do your will."
He takes away the first to establish the second.
By this "will," we have been consecrated
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

This reading is largely a quotation and explanation of Psalm 40, a psalm of David.  The author of Hebrews and his readers all assume that the speaker of this psalm is the Son of David, the Messiah.  They hear the psalm as the voice of Christ, and interpret accordingly.

The quoted part of the psalm emphasizes that God desires obedience more than sacrificial worship.  The statement “sacrifices and offerings you did not desire” is overstatement for the sake of emphasis.  God did command sacrifices and offerings, especially in Leviticus 1-7.  However, these laws about sacrifice and offering were not part of the covenant when it was first made with Israel at Sinai (Exod 19-24).  The regulations of the initial covenant with Israel at Sinai under Moses were largely limited to the ten commandments (Exod 20).  The laws about sacrifices and other rituals only came later (Lev 1-7), after Israel had sinned at the Golden Calf (Exod 32).  In one sense, the laws of sacrifice were like penances in response to Israel’s covenant violations.  Thus St. Paul will say, “Why then the law?  It was added because of transgressions …” (Gal 3:19).  Animal sacrifices and similar rituals were never the main point of God’s covenant with Israel.  They were always a “Plan B,” a response to Israel’s sin.  Therefore Jeremiah will say, “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.  But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you’” (Jer 7:22-23).  Observe how similar this sounds to the quoted verses of Psalm 40. 

Our Second Reading is saying that the reason for the incarnation (“a body you have prepared for me”) is that Christ may come to Israel and offer his body once for all, a definitive sacrifice that will put an end to all animal sacrifice, and change the covenant economy from one focused on external observances (animal sacrifices, etc.) to one focused on obedience to God’s will from the depths of the heart.  For example, look at this other passage of Jeremiah:

Jer. 31:31   “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.  33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

At Christmas, God shows himself to be our “husband” by wedding his nature (divine) to our nature (human) in the person of his Son, which establishes a communion between our natures so close that God’s will (his “law”) is in our very inmost being (“written upon the heart”).  Although animals are no longer consecrated for sacrifice, each one of us becomes consecrated to God, a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).

4. The Gospel Reading is Luke 1:39-45:

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
"Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled."

In this episode, Elizabeth treats Mary as the royalty she is, because, after all, Mary is a princess, even a queen, of the House of David.  She is the one to bear the Crown Prince, the royal son.

We must keep in mind that from a human social perspective, Elizabeth was of a much higher standing and “rank” than her lowly cousin Mary.  Elizabeth was the wife of a high-ranking priest Zechariah, and she was old.  Mary was young, and only betrothed to an otherwise unknown craftsmen from a poor and distant region of Israel, Nazareth.  According to social convention, all honor and deference should have flowed from Mary to Elizabeth.

But this account from Luke defies social conventions.  The high-ranking Elizabeth falls all over herself to express honor to Mary, her unwed, pregnant teenage cousin.  She actually venerates (shows honor to) Our Blessed Mother.

            "Blessed are you among women,

This is a Hebrew idiom, which means “You are the most blessed of all women.”

            and blessed is the fruit of your womb

The same force carries over: “The fruit of your womb is most blessed of all children.”

And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

This, too, is idiomatic, meaning, “What have I done to earn such a great honor that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

The “mother of my Lord” is a title of the Queen Mother.  In ancient Israel, it was not the king’s wife but his mother who reigned as queen.  Her place in honor and influence was second only to the king.  Observe, for example, that Solomon bows down to the Queen Mother Bathsheba, has a throne brought for her, and promises her a “blank check” for whatever she requests (1 Kings 2:19-20).  That was court protocol for how the Queen Mother was to be treated.  Other Old Testament texts (Jer 13:18; 29:2) confirm that she ranked directly after the king in social status.

Elizabeth is a wise woman, learned in the history and culture of Israel and Judah.  Through the Holy Spirit, she recognizes our mother Mary as the Queen Mother, as the “first lady” of the Kingdom of Israel, and treats her as such, showing her all deference and veneration.  So if we are ever challenged by non-Catholics concerning the biblical nature of the honor we show Mary within the Church, we should point to this passage of Luke as indication that the custom of venerating the Blessed Mother began in her lifetime, in the very pages of Scripture.

Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled."

As in other places of Scripture, what is highlighted in particular about the Blessed Mother is her faith.  She was and is a woman of incredible faith, who believed the prophets and trusted the angelic messengers, even when the message seemed beyond human credibility.  In this, she serves as an example for us. 

At this Mass, let’s ask God that Mary’s faith become our own.  St. Josemaria liked to pray:

“Oh Lord, I wish to receive you,
with the same purity, humility, and devotion,
that your Blessed Mother received you …”

Mary believed God, and so Jesus Christ took flesh within her.  At this Mass, Jesus Christ is going to take flesh once more in the Blessed Sacrament, and enter each one of us, as he entered the body of his Blessed Mother.  Let’s ask for the faith truly to believe that this is so—that through this Eucharist, Christ’s body is united to ours.  And then let’s make an act of total abandonment, discarding any ulterior motives in our life (for comfort, pleasure, power, wealth, fame, etc), that in the coming week our only waking desire would be to say to the Lord, “Behold, I come to do your will.”

No comments: