Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of Advent – Year B – December 24, 2017
From which messiah will salvation come?
Messianism is ingrained in us more than we realize. It is powered by the loss and anguish we feel in the face of a world marked by contradictions, tragedies and death. It is kept alive by the eagerly awaiting of someone’s intervention who can radically change it.
Every age has had its messianism.
People of the Renaissance were convinced that they had terminated the medieval slumber. It was a millennium marked by ignorance and barbarism. They thought of having initiated the Golden Age, with the recovery of classical values. Then came the messianism of science, creator of progress and development. It was thought capable of solving any problem, except that of death. In the 18th century the Illuminists were convinced of having kindled the light of reason, after centuries of darkness in which people had left themselves uncritically guided by the revealed truth from heaven and translated into dogmas. Then the idelogical messianism of liberty and democracy sprang up. They are all bearers of humanizing instances until they could not claim a divine worship, and having become idols, they backfired against people.
All ideologies faded away and the world continues to wait for a savior. The need for change causes impatience in some. This easily leads to fanaticism and the use of violence. In others it generates resignation and withdrawal on the narrow private interests.
The messiah resurfaces every time the wise men, the winners, the rulers of this world are forced to declare their failure. He proposes a kingdom of peace and justice that, according to the wisdom of this world, will never be realized. But a heavenly messenger guaranteed him. He is the Messiah of God and the new world will be brought to completion, because "nothing is impossible with God."
To internalize the message, we repeat
“The Son of the Virgin Mary is the only messiah who has never disappointed me.”
The last years of David’s life were neither easy nor quiet. The kingdom, built at the cost of so much blood, was still united. However, the first signs of conflicts were already beginning to be noticed. These conflicts were breaking out again between the tribes of the south and those of the north. The power and prestige of the great king, now in decline, were no longer able to contain the tensions. The neighboring peoples, the Ammonites, the Moabites, subjugated by violence, subjected to exorbitant taxes and constrained to forced labor (2 S 12:31), were just waiting for the right moment to resume hostilities and get rid of the unbearable yoke. The major gripe of David, however, was his family, the rivalry between his sons. Amnon, the beloved eldest son, was murdered by his brother Absalom, who, in turn, turning against his father, was killed by Joab. Another son, Chiliab had probably perished during the same family feud. The kingdom would be for the fourth son, Adonijah, but the intrigues of the ambitious Bathsheba, the favorite, and Nathan, the prophet of the court, led David to appoint Solomon as his successor. The struggle for the throne ended with a new crime, the killing of Adonijah by order of Solomon.
It is in this ambient that today’s reading is placed. It constitutes the heart of David’s whole story. It is the reference point for all the rest of Israel’s story.
To strengthen the unity of the kingdom, David decided to build a temple to the Lord. To implement such an ambitious project, he needed the approval and support of Nathan, the only one with moral authority who could convince the people to collaborate with this work. Having assumed the attitude of the most pious of devotees, David told him his intentions: "Look, I live in a house of cedar but the Ark of God is housed in a tent" (v. 2).
A bit taken by surprise, Nathan was convinced and approved the idea. That same night, thinking better, he realized that the sacrifices imposed on the people were already too much. It was not the time to undertake such a construction. The next day he spontaneously went to the king and told him the revelation he had received from God. In the version of the episode passed down from the book Chronicles, the reason given by the prophet is referred to: "You have shed much blood and fought great battles; it is not for you to build a temple for my name, since you have shed so much blood on earth in my presence. But a son is born to you. He shall be a man of peace. He shall build a temple for my name" (1 Chr 22:8-10).
After denying permission to build the temple, Nathan thought it was time to give an answer to another agonizing doubt of the sovereign: What is the fate of the incipient dynasty? David knew that all the prospects were there because, after his death, a fight would be unleashed in his family, no holds barred, in order to seize the throne. The enemies would surely take advantage and would wipe out the young dynasty.
Nathan said to the king an unprecedented promise: you shall not build a house for God, but God will build you a stable, solid and eternal house (vv. 11-16).
In the Bible, the word house does not only mean the material building, but also the family, the posterity. The prophet used it in this sense. In the name of God, he assured David that his successor would be his son, and that his dynasty would never be destroyed.
We know dynasties that remained in power for hundreds and even thousands of years, but then they disappeared. Those who heard Nathan say the oracle must have thought of a white lie, dictated by respect and compassion for the old king. Instead through the prophet’s mouth, God was committing his loyalty in a solemn promise. The Davidic dynasty would last forever. This is how Israel understood it and, in difficult times, she always refers to it, certain that the Lord would be true to his word.
A sad but dramatic event happened in July 587 B.C. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and put an end to the reign of David. It was not only a military defeat, but a tough test for the faith of the people who asked: "Has the Lord forgotten his promise?"
They were years of confusion until Israel was able to convince herself that the words of God are irrevocable. She must look to the future, wait for the coming of a descendant of David, the one who would have received from the Lord an everlasting kingdom. It was the beginning of the messianic hope.
The fulfillment of the prophecy exceeded all expectations. Both David and Nathan dreamed of a kingdom of this world, but the Lord does not conform to the plans of man, which are always petty. He upsets them, replaces them with his plans and asks them to trust him.
God raised up in the family of David a king, Jesus, the son of Mary. Israel expected a conqueror of empires. The Lord answered by sending a weak, poor, helpless child. They are the surprises of God. Blessed are those who, like Mary, are able to understand and accept them!
The term mystery for Paul refers to the plan of salvation that God has in mind from all eternity. It was gradually revealed to people (v. 25).
God began to reveal it in creation. The world he brought into being by the word: And God said ..., it is, in a sense, "impregnated" of this divine word and is able to communicate it to whoever contemplates it with clear eyes and a pure heart. From the beginning, in fact, he "is continually doing good, giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, poviding you with food and filling your hearts with gladness" (Acts 14:17).
Then he spoke more clearly through the prophets, sent to enlighten his people (v. 26).
Finally, in Christ, he has completed his revelation: "in our times he has spoken definitively to us through his Son. He is the radiance of God’s glory and bears the stamp of God’s hidden being" (Heb 1:1-3).
When, on the cross, Jesus cried: "It is accomplished" (Jn 19:30), he did not mean to say: "For me it's over," but: "This is the most glorious moment of my life," one in which the Father showed how far his love for man goes. He no longer has nothing left to add; the "mystery" is fully revealed.
In the few verses in today's passage, which is the conclusion of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul thanks God for this revelation. It is now clear to everyone that he cultivates thoughts of peace, and plans of salvation for every person and wants everyone to be in Christ, "one new man," destroying all enmity (Eph 2:14-18).
Since the early centuries, the angel's greeting to Mary has inspired Christian artists. It is a figurative theme present in every church. Fra Angelico’s annunciation is all grace and sweetness. That of Simone Martini is famous, with the angel Gabriel, incorporeal creature that almost dissolves in the light of the golden background, while Mary, upset, withdraws without losing the serenity of her beautiful face. The sensations aroused by these masterpieces are lovely and the emotions felt reading the gospel pages are intense. However, after an initial approach to the sublime mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son, it is necessary to search for the message that the evangelist intended to communicate. One must separate Luke’s account from the apocryphal gospels wherein many legendary traits appeared. From the fifth century the artists reproduced them in their paintings. Then the literary genre of the passage is exactly defined highlighting the fact that it has nothing in common with fairy tales.
We start from an observation: it is not the first time in the Bible that an extraordinary birth of a child is announced. If these annunciations are compared, one notes that the characters called to serve an extraordinary mission are often born abnormally. Isaac was conceived when his mother, Sarah, barren, was ninety years old and his father, Abraham, a hundred (Gen 17:17); the mother of Samson (Jdg 13:3) and Samuel (1 S 1:5) are sterile; the parents of John the Baptist are old and Elizabeth was barren. It is not surprising that, in the apocryphal gospels, the birth of Mary is presented according to the same pattern: Anne and Joachim are old and the mother is infertile. Even the birth of Jesus takes place in an extraordinary way: Mary is a virgin and had no relations with her husband.
The Bible emphasizes the prodigious component of these births to show that they are not the result of natural human fecundity, but a gift from heaven. Salvation, liberation or hope that these characters are meant to introduce in the world come from God.
If to these announcements of extraordinary births we also add the callings of Moses (Ex 3:2-12) and Gideon (Jdg 6:12-22), we verify another significant fact: all these stories are structured in the same way. They are following the same pattern and contain the same elements. They, in fact, are similar, like bricks coming out from the same mold. First, the angel of the Lord is introduced into the scene; then the one who receives God's message is seized by fear; the angel announces the birth of a child, indicating the name and his destined specific mission; a difficulty or an objection is raised to which the angel responds by giving a sign that is timely realized.
The Annunciation to Mary follows this scheme in every detail. Therefore it is difficult to determine which are, in the story, the real historical data and what are the elements that depend on literary artifice. The facts may exactly be reported as they were referred to. If so, the evangelist could not narrate them in a different way; but even if the Annunciation of Mary had been an inner mystical experience, the story would have been the same. To be understood by his readers, Luke had to follow the established pattern imposed by the Bible.
What we can say, without a shade of doubt, is that Luke did not intend to draw up a cold report of what happened. Unlike the artists who seem to direct the attention on Mary and on the heavenly messenger, Luke wanted the gaze focused on the son of Mary. To know who Jesus is interests the believers more than the inner emotions of the Virgin.
With these caveats, we come to the message.
The solemn oracle uttered by Nathan has profoundly marked the history and spirituality of Israel. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Zechariah referred to this, in the darkest moments. Even more surprising—when the Davidic dynasty had disappeared, Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple razed—a psalmist presented again to the people God's promise: “I have sworn to David my servant ... his dynasty will last forever, and his throne endure as the sun before me. It will shine forever like the moon, the unfailing watch of heavens” (Ps 89:4,37-38) .
In an irreparably compromised situation, how could one beliveve that the Lord would not have lied? Yet the psalmist was convinced that, if God had shown capable to make Sarah fruitful, he would certainly be able to have the promised Messiah born in the sterile womb of a vigrin Israel.
But here's the surprise: while the eyes of those who awaited the saving intervention of God were facing Jerusalem, God set his eyes on a tiny village lost in the mountains of Galilee. It is so insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. It was inhabited by simple people with little education and even considered unclean because they lived in contact with pagans. To Philip, who enthusiastically declared his admiration for Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael mockingly replied: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46).
The surprises are not over. To whom does God turn? Whom does he choose? Not a valiant liberator like Gideon, not a hero like Samson or a powerful ruler as Solomon, but a woman, a virgin.
Virginity for us is a sign of dignity and a great honor. In Israel it was appreciated before marriage, not after. For a girl it was a disgrace to remain a virgin throughout her life. She was judged unable to draw to herself the eyes of a man. The childless woman was a dead tree that bore no fruits. A derogatory connotation is tied to the word virgin. In the most dramatic moments of its history, Jerusalem defeated, humiliated, destroyed and hopeless, is called virgin Zion (Jer 31:4; 14:13), because in her life was interrupted; she was unable to generate.
Mary is a virgin not only from the biological point of view, as the Church has always believed, but also in the biblical sense. She is poor and is conscious of it. She finds herself in the condition of the woman who may just be "filled with grace" from God. We do not celebrate her moral integrity in the Annunciation. No one doubts of this, but we contemplate the "great things" that God who is “powerful” and “holy is his name” has done in her.
Those who consider the wonders done by the Lord in "his servant" can no longer fall for her own unworthiness, because she understands that all are destined to become, in the hands of God, the masterpieces of his grace.
Luke is the evangelist of the poor in whom he wants to infuse joy and hope. Therefore, from the very first page of his Gospel, he emphasizes the preferences of God for the last ones, for those who count for nothing, for all that is despised by people. Making fruitful the desert-like womb of the virgin Zion and of Mary, he showed that there is no condition of death that the Lord does not know how to recover life. Even the hearts dry as the desert sands he will transform into lush gardens, irrigated by the water of his Spirit, the gardens will become forests (Is 32:15).
At this point we are able to grasp the central message of the passage.
Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you (v. 28). These are the words the heavenly messenger addressed to Mary. He did not improvise it on his arrival at Nazareth, nor was it taught him in heaven, before depature. This greeting was well known to Mary because the prophets had already addressed it to the Virgin Zion. Zephaniah was the first to formulate it, in a time of people’s moral decadence. Outraged by the existing corruption, he pronounced terrible oracles of condemnation against foreign nations and against the holy city, which has become "rebellious, polluted, arrogant" (Zep 3:1). Then came the surprise. One day he changed his tone, and from threats of punishment, he goes to the sweet language, to consoling words: "Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! .. . do not be afraid " (Zep 3:14-18; Zec 9:9).
Why this sudden change? Was the city probably converted? Not at all, only a small remnant, a humble and lowly people had turned to the Lord and began to confide in him. The majority had continued to be away from God. If she was limited to considering her own sin, Zion would have had every reason to lose heart and wait for the fall. But Zephaniah invited her to look up and contemplate the love of her God. This is the reason of the exultation: "The Lord is with you, mighty savior."
Putting on the angel’s mouth the invitation to rejoice, Luke identifies Mary with the Virgin Zion who rejoices because the Lord is present in her.
If we scroll down the Bible, we see that when God speaks to someone, usually he calls him by name. In our story the name of Mary is replaced by an epithet: loved by God. If God changes the name, it means that he destines her to a particular mission. Abram became Abraham because he had become the father of many nations (Gen 17:5) and Sarai was called Sara, princess, because she is destined to be the mother of kings (Gen 17:15).
So what is the mission entrusted to ''Loved by God"? That of proclaiming to the world what the Lord has done in the poor who rely on his love.
After the greeting, the angel announced to Mary the birth of a child to whom the Lord God will give him the kingdom of David, his ancestor; he will rule over the people of Jacob forever, and his reign shall have no end (vv. 32-33).
These words were not invented by Luke. They can be found, almost identical, on the mouth of Nathan (2 S 7:12-17). Placing them on the lips of the angel, the evangelist declares that the prophecy made to David was accomplished in the son of Mary: Jesus is the long-awaited messiah destined to rule forever.
In the words of the heavenly messenger, the theme of little ones, made great by the benevolence of God, is taken up again. David was a shepherd, the youngest of his brothers. God took him from the pasture where he kept the flock and made him a glorious king. Now the Lord starts from a situation of poverty: the family of David is fallen, the kingdom is destroyed, but the "Powerful" intervenes, takes a bud, a son of David and consigned to him a kingdom that will not end.
It is an invitation not to be seduced by other messiahs, not to expect other saviors because no one can ever replace Jesus. Many will come after him and will introduce themselves saying, “I am the Mesiah!” (Mt 24:4) and "perform signs and wonders so great that they would deceive even God’s chosen people"(Mt 24:24). They will have a momentary success, but—ensures the Evangelist—an eternal kingdom was promised only to Jesus.
To the objection of Mary, the angel answers: The power of the Most High will overshadow you (v. 35). In the Old Testament the shadow and the cloud are signs of God’s presence. During the exodus, God preceded his people in a pillar of cloud (Ex 13:21); a cloud covered the tent where Moses went to meet God (Ex 40:34-35), and when the Lord came down on Mount Sinai to speak with Moses, the mountain was covered with a thick cloud (Ex 19:16).
Stating that the shadow of the Almighty has rested on Mary, Luke says that God renders himself present in her. We are faced with this evangelist’s profession of faith in the divinity of Mary’s son.
The last words of the angel are: With God nothing is impossible (v. 37). These are the same words that the Lord spoke to Abraham when he announced the birth of Isaac (Gen 18:14). They are a statement often recalled and fondly repeated, especially to those who feel themselves too poor, too unworthy and think that for them there is no more hope of recovery and salvation: "With God nothing is impossible."
I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me as you have said (v. 38). It is Mary's response to God's call.
Many paintings show evidence of surprise in the face of the Virgin and, at times, almost her dismay. However, the acceptance of God's will always follows.
Let it be done, however, does not mean a resigned acquiescence. The greek word genoito is an optative and expresses a joful desire of Mary, an anxiety to see the Lord's plan realized in her.
Where God comes, there also joy always comes. The story begins with the "Rejoice," and ends with the joyful cry of the Virgin.
No one had understood God's plan. David, Nathan, Solomon, the kings of Israel had not understood it. All had put their dreams in opposition to God and expected from him only the help to achieve them. Mary does not behave like them; she does not put her plan in opposition to God. She only asks what is the role God intends to entrust to her and joyously welcomes his initiative.