Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mystery Now Revealed: The Fourth Sunday in Advent

In this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church calls us to contemplate the mystery kept secret from ages past that is now revealed. In fact, while this mystery was kept secret, it is also paradoxically found within the pages of the Old Testament, including in our first reading from 2 Samuel 7.

FIRST READING: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
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.”
In 2 Samuel 7, the Church puts before us one of the most significant passages in the Old Testament, for in it God enters into an everlasting covenant with the house of David. While the term “covenant” is not found in the passage, the content of a covenant is, and in this case, a certain kind of covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, covenants established kinship bonds between previously unrelated people by means of solemn oath taking and ritual enactment. While covenant making could take different shapes, Scott Hahn has helpfully suggested that covenant making falls into three basic categories: kinship (between equals), treaty, and grant.[1]

While kinship covenants could also be called parity covenants, treaty covenants were established when a king or ruler wanted to ensure a subjects’ loyalty, while grant covenants were often given to reward a loyal subject, but always as an expression of the goodwill of the ruler.

The key to determining which kind of covenant is being enacted centers on who is the primary oath taker, for this demonstrates upon whom the obligations for fulfillment principally falls. In our text, it is clear that God is the principal oath taker, thereby signifying that God is primarily responsible for fulfilling the covenant with David. This leads to the question: what does God promise?

In our passage, God promises the house of David an everlasting kingdom, wherein the Davidic King would have a unique, filial relationship to God. While it is true that the nation of Israel as a whole could rightly be described as God’s “first-born son” (Exodus 4:22), it certainly appears that the kind of divine sonship promised to the Davidic heirs surpasses the divine sonship enjoyed by Israel as a whole.

To once again relate our passage to the Ancient Near East, kings were often viewed as in some way divinely begotten by their god such that they could be viewed as objects of worship.[2] In looking at texts like Psalm 2 (“you are my son, today I have “begotten” you, see also Psalm 45, 110), it certainly appears that the Davidic King was viewed in rather exalted terms.

However, due to the clear distinction within the faith of Israel between creature and creator, it appears best to suggest that the divine sonship of the Davidic King brought about a unique sharing in the divine life without making the King “god” in the proper sense. Instead, it appears better to suggest that the unique, filial sharing of the Davidic King in the divine life flowed from the covenant itself, a suggestion that finds further validation in our responsorial psalm.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29
R/ (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, “My kindness is established forever”;
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.’
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Here in our responsorial Psalm it becomes clear that there is indeed a covenant with the house of David, for the Psalmist puts in the mouth of God these words: I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant. In this covenant, God swears to David that I will confirm your posterity and establish your throne for all generations.

In light of such a filial relationship, the Davidic heir could call God “Father” with full confidence, knowing that God will demonstrate His covenantal faithfulness to the house of David forever.

However, with the Babylonian exile the reign of Davidic Kings appeared to come to an end, for even after Judah returned from exile, the line of David did not return an heir to the throne. As a result, it was certainly reasonable for Israel to wonder how God was going to keep his covenant promises to David.

In coming to the second reading, Paul explains that while the prophetic writings contain the promises, their true fulfillment is best viewed as a mystery now revealed.

SECOND READING: Rom 16:25-27
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.
In a passage that some scholars suggest is a later addition, Paul states that his Gospel of Jesus Christ is also a mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings. At first blush, this statement is somewhat puzzling, for Paul states that this mystery was both a secret for long ages and now manifested within the prophetic writings.

This could understandably lead one to ask: which is it? Was it hidden for ages past or was it present in the prophetic writings?

It appears that Paul’s answer to the second question would be “yes” to both parts, and to understand how both work together perhaps the best place to look for our purposes is Paul’s introduction to the same letter (Romans), for there he also mentions God’s promises in the Scriptures and the important phrase the obedience of faith. 

In the introduction to Romans, Paul mentions his gospel is “promised beforehand in the Scriptures”, and in particular, the Gospel concerning God’s own Son, one descended from David according to the flesh.

Yet in light of our reading stating that the mystery was kept secret for long ages, one is left to wonder why Paul would say that the Gospel was promised beforehand in the Scriptures, for it is not a secret that David was promised that an heir would reign on his throne forever.

From both the conclusion and introduction of Romans we have two key hints about how to resolve this tension, beginning with the statement from our reading that the mystery is now manifested through the prophetic writings. In other words, the divine promises could have been present without necessarily meaning that they were fully understood by those who received them.

Yet this leads to the question: if Jesus is the promised heir of David, what is it that was kept secret for long ages? This leads to the hint found in the introduction as to how to understand the mystery now revealed, namely, that Paul states Jesus is designated the Son of God in power through his resurrection (Romans 1:4).

In telling the Romans that Jesus was designated the Son of God in his resurrection, Paul is not suggesting that Jesus was not previously the Son of God. Rather, in being designated the Son of God in power, it is more akin to stating that Jesus was enthroned as the Messianic King at his resurrection and ascension. This reading finds further validation in Romans 8:34, for there Paul states that Jesus was raised and is seated at the right hand of God interceding for his people.

To put this together with our passage from Romans 16:25-27, Paul’s Gospel could be described in the following terms: it was “promised beforehand in the Scriptures concerning God’s Son from David’s line, a mystery that was hidden but is now revealed in the reign of the risen Christ.”

In coming to the Gospel reading, a similar dynamic can be discerned, for the child who is promised to Mary will be given the throne of David his father.

GOSPEL: Luke 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of 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.
In our passage we once again encounter the covenant promises given to David, but now God’s covenantal “grant” to David is being fulfilled at last. However, this fulfillment is also a mystery, a mystery that begins with the mother of the Davidic King being a virgin from Nazareth named Mary.

Though this passage has many aspects that are worth investigating, we will limit our analysis to those that help to reveal the nature of mystery now revealed. In her reply to the angel Gabriel, Mary answers in a rather puzzling manner: How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? 

While it is easy to simply read Mary’s reply as motivated by the fact that she was currently a virgin, there still remains the more pressing question: why is Mary puzzled that she was about to give birth to a child since she was about to be married to Joseph? Perhaps this points to Mary’s commitment to remain a virgin, for the Greek term (ginōskō) could be taken as a timeless present (gnomic), thereby clarifying her astonishment at the Angel’s predication. 

In any event, Gabriel continues and states that Mary will be “overshadowed” (future active indicative of episkiazō) by the Holy Spirit, a possible echo of Exodus 40:35 when the glory cloud of God overshadowed (imperfect active indicative of episkiazō) the Tabernacle upon its completion.

In light of such a remarkable promise, Mary responds faithfully, or in the words of the second reading, with the obedience of faith when she states: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.

While all of this highlights that Mary is a central participant in this mysterious fulfillment of the divine promises to David, the focus is not primarily on Mary but on the child whom she is to name “Jesus.” 

The child that Gabriel promises to Mary is also promised the throne of David his father and his kingdom will have no end. In these statements from the angel Gabriel we have an announcement that the covenantal promises to David are being fulfilled, yet even here there is a further mystery, for Christ's reception of the everlasting Davidic throne requires the events of holy week and the ascension.

It is at this point that Romans once again helps, for the mystery of the Davidic Messiah is that of a resurrected King, designated the Son of God in power in his resurrection. To connect this to the promise that Jesus would receive the throne of David, the mystery hidden now revealed can be summarized as follows: the ultimate fulfillment of the promises to David occurs not only in the birth, but ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God.


In light of the combination of passages given to us by the Church, what is it that we are meant to conclude? It appears that the Church wants us to contemplate the mystery now revealed in the person of the living Christ Jesus in a number of interconnected ways.

First, the everlasting kingdom of David is one that has been established through the faithfulness of God, for God has indeed been faithful to his covenant grant to David to put one of his heirs on the throne forever.

Second, this fulfillment has occurred in a manner that was promised in the Scriptures yet it was not able to be fully comprehended ahead of time. To borrow a phrase from Richard Hays, these promises could only be fully understood by “reading backwards.”[3]

Third and finally, the fulfillment of these promises centers on the incarnate Christ, descended from David according to the flesh, but crowned the Davidic King in his resurrection and ascension.

As a result, in anticipating the birth of our Lord during this Advent season, we welcome the long awaited King from the line of David, yet in a manner more mysterious than we could ever imagine. This can be seen in the very nature of the throne Jesus has received, for now Christ reigns as King over the nations as the rightful ruler of “the world to come.”

This is the mystery hidden now revealed, and this is the King we should prepare for during this Advent season, for when he comes to us he will not come as he did in the womb of Mary, but rather as the resurrected Lord who will judge the living and the dead.

If this is at the center of the mystery that the Church put before us to contemplate, then our meditation upon this mystery should seek to produce a profound vigilance in our lives to be ready for the coming of the risen Christ.

Put differently: are we ready for the coming of the King? What is it in each of our lives that we would be ashamed of if Christ were to come this very minute?


[1] See Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 28-31.

[2] See John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 278-286. While Walton is right to emphasize the real discontinuity between Israel and its general context regarding kingship, he underemphasizes texts such as 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 2; 45; 110, all of which highlight a remarkably high view of the Davidic King. In fact, Isaiah 9:6 offers perhaps the highest view of the Davidide in the entire Old Testament, for there the prophet states that the future Davidide would be “Mighty God.” While perhaps erring on the equal and opposite side of Walton, see M. David Litwa, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Pauline Soteriology (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 109-116. It appears to me that in-between the accounts of Walton and Litwa is the best option, namely, that the Davidide had a privileged relationship to God where divine sonship entailed a real participation in the divine nature, without being God. In short, one way theosis or deification existed in ancient Israel was through the grace given to the Davidic King. 

[3] See Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Four-Fold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).


Thomas Renz said...

"Why is Mary puzzled that she was about to give birth to a child since she was about to be married to Joseph?" It's a good question which I have pondered today at greater length than before. The popular idea that Mary had already resolved to remain a virgin for her entire life seems to me anachronistic and without any foundation in the text.

David T. Landry, "Narrative Logic in the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38)," JBL 114 (1995): 65-79 is well worth reading. It can be found at

John Kincaid said...

Hi Thomas,

Excellent point, and that is why I said "perhaps", for it is not explicitly clear that Mary's response is due to a commitment to remain a Virgin. In fact, it is possible that this potential reading is anachronistic, for as I am sure you know, many scholars (including Ratzinger) find it unlikely that this manner of virginal commitment existed at this time.

With all of this being said, let me offer some gentle and friendly pushback on both the anachronistic concern and the suggestion that the virginity reading is without any foundation.

As for the former, at a minimum we have both Paul (I Cor 7) and Matthew (Matt 19) speaking of the supremacy of virginity in the first century, and while this does not demonstrate something akin to consecrated virginity, nonetheless it does point to a theologically motivated account of the importance of virginity at roughly the same time as Luke.

As for not having any foundation in the text, if by foundation explicit warrant is required, then yes, I would agree that the suggestion that Mary's question points to her vow to remain a Virgin is without foundation.

However, it is precisely because there is no explicit textual explanation as to why Mary asks this question that various explanations are offered in order to fill in the hermeneutical gap.

As a result, I would suggest that the various explanations should be assessed on the basis of how much explanatory power they offer in filling in the gap. While I am eager to read Landry's article and am open to being persuaded, I remain at least open to the possibility that Mary's question is a clue to something more, namely, Mary does not "know" a man should be read as a timeless present.

Interestingly, diverse voices such as Nyssa and Luther highlighted this exegetical option, and while I would not say it is explicit simply speaking, I would suggest that Mary's question itself offers some foundation for this reading in a "suggestive" rather than "demonstrable" manner.

In any event, I wanted to let you in on my thought process and to let you know that my reading is simply one suggestion among others, and it is not offered as the explicit and unquestionable reading.

Thomas Renz said...

Thank you, John, for sharing your thoughts. Matthew 19 suggests to me that the idea that it might be better not to marry is new to the disciples and rather puzzling. This new dominical teaching finds expression in 1 Cor 7. It is the coming of Christ which relativises family ties and puts new value on virginity. This is why you get monks and nuns in Christianity, while the deliberate renunciation of marriage remains all but completely alien to Judaism.

Unknown said...

Hi Thomas,

Correct me if I'm wrong but don't the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal to us that there were Jewish Essene men (and perhaps women) living lives of what may be considered consecrated virginity before Christ was even born. Thus the idea of renunciation of marriage was not alien to all Jews in Christ's time. Even still the first monks and nuns in the church may have been inspired by older Essene practices now illuminated by Christ. Also given that some scholars believe that the Holy Family may have been influenced by Essene practices it is not implausible that the Virgin Mary knew something of a life of consecrated virginity.
Of course I am no scholar but I am simply restating what I have learned from scholars so I welcome any corrections.

God Bless & Merry Christmas !

Thomas Renz said...

Hi Chris,

As far as I know there are three ancient authors who speak of celibacy in connection with the Essenes but there are several problems in linking this with Mary.

(1) Philo describes the Essenses as "men of old or ripe years who have learned how to control their bodily passions" who live a communal life.

(2) Pliny the Elder speaks of the Essenes as a community "without women and renouncing love entirely".

(3) Josephus says this about them: "They renounce pleasure as an evil, and regard continence and resistance to passions as a virtue. They disdain marriage for themselves, being content to adopt the children of others at a tender age in order to instruct them. They do not abolish marriage, but are convinced women are all licentious and incapable of fidelity to one man."

This does not sound like the sort of communal life a young maiden betrothed to a husband would want to or even be allowed to join. (And I also like to think that Mary's theology was more sound than all that even at her tender age but of course we do not know.)

This is even without the complication of trying to discern how the Essenes relate to the Dead Sea communities in whose scrolls do not suggest that celibacy was the norm among them.

There is a brief and useful discussion in Cecilia Wassen's Women in the Damascus Document (SBL, 2005), see

Blessings and merry Christmas!

Thomas Renz said...

Essene abstinence seems to be based on a low view of sex and women. Christian abstinence is more positive where it is based on the Gospel.