Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of Advent – Year C – December 23, 2018
Poor but Rich
The Psalmist prays: “Answer me, because I am poor” (Ps 86:1). The reason with which he plans to convince God to intervene in his favor is surprising: I am poor.
To gain access to the palaces of the kings, the rulers of this world, solid recommendations are needed. One needs to produce titles of merit; credentials and merits are required. With God it is not so; the only certificate required to be received in audience is the state of poverty.
His sympathies are for small ones, the helpless, the derelict. He is “the father of orphans and protector of widows” (Ps 68:6) who prefers one who does not count for anything, despicable in the eyes of people. “The Lord has chosen you—says Moses to the Israelites—not because you are the most numerous among all the peoples (on the contrary you are the least), but because of his love for you” (Deut 7:7-8).
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8), so they are difficult to understand. Gideon called to make an arduous job, was amazed and objects: “Pardon me, Lord, but how can I save Israel? My family is the lowliest in my tribe and I am the least in the family of my father” (Jdg 6:15).
Today’s readings present us with a series of situations and insignificant characters in which God has done wonders. They are an invitation to recognize—as Mary did—our poverty and to dispose ourselves to receive the work of salvation which the Lord comes to realize.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The Lord will do great things for the poor who trust in him.”
At the time of Micah the political, social and economic situation of Israel is disastrous. Everywhere there are signs of violence. In the courts, the judges let themselves be corrupted by gifts. The priests and prophets think only to accumulate money. A skilled and overbearing minority among the people has taken hold of all fields and exploits the poor as laborers, as poorly paid seasonal workers. The king, Hezekiah, was a good man, but he has very limited capacity of government. The times are too difficult for a weak one like him.
In this complicated situation Micah pronounces his prophecy: from the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem, from the ancient family of Ephrata “the ruler of Israel” shall come (v. 1).
The descendants of David hold power for three hundred years, but they have combined disasters, oppressed and starved the people. What was the cause of their errors? Pride, above all, then the belief that they can do without the Lord. They have forgotten that they did not become king because of their capacity; they have not installed themselves on the throne with their forces. It was God who transformed a humble shepherd in a great ruler.
Now—says the prophet—from the human point of view, the situation is hopeless. However, the Lord is going to take action, “she who is to give birth has given birth” (v. 2) and a new reign will begin from the line of David.
To whom was Micah referring? He certainly thought of a king of the Davidic dynasty. But God—as he is wont to do—fulfills his promises beyond all human expectation. He lets another seven hundred years to pass and from a woman, Mary, the announced Son of David is born.
This child—Jesus—was not presumptuous and arrogant like his ancestors. He completed what is written in the second part of the reading (vv. 3-4a): he was the good shepherd who led the people “with the strength of the Lord.” He began the new world in which people can live safely in their houses, the world in which peace reigns everywhere, even to the ends of the earth.
At this point, however, the objection that the rabbis already addressed to the Christians of the first centuries spontaneously surges in us: where is the peace that reaches all corners of the earth? They said: let someone show us this new world and we shall believe in Jesus.
Christians have a unique opportunity to answer this provocative question. They can indicate a specific place where this peace has come with the advent of the Lord: in their family, their community, or at least in their hearts.
The people who got healed from a serious illness, who escaped some danger, who felt impure and needed to ask for forgiveness for their sins, went to the temple. They bought a kid, handed it to the priest, and offered it as a sacrifice to God.
The Old Testament approves and regulates these manifestations of religiosity. However, the prophets did not show too much sympathy for these practices because, in general, they were reduced to mere external gestures which did not correspond to an authentic conversion of the heart.
In today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, the words of a man in the temple thanking God for having been liberated from a fatal disease are reported. He says: “You were not pleased with burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said: ‘Here I am. It was written of me in the scroll. I will do your will, O God’” (vv. 5-7).
The author of Hebrews goes on to say that Christ brought to fulfillment in himself the words of this Psalm. He did not offer any material sacrifice, but said to the Father: “Here I come to do your will.” So it puts an end to the ancient offerings in the temple and initiated the new times (vv. 8-10).
Here I come—says Christ in this Advent season—not to ask for songs, prayers, incense, solemn religious ceremonies, but to get you involved in my project, to let you know my Spirit will get you to do, as I have done, the will of the Father.
If we interpret this story as a piece of news, we wonder why Luke wrote it. The gesture of Mary who goes to congratulate her cousin is courteous. Elizabeth received from God the longed-for gift of motherhood, but it is still a marginal episode. It does not constitute a significant milestone in the life of Jesus and does not represent a point of reference for our faith.
A second observation: some details of this story are at least strange. A strong emotion—mothers ensure—causes feelings even in the fetus and may stimulate some movement; but how did she establish that it was a leap of joy? It is not even easy to explain the haste of Mary (v. 39) going to find Elizabeth who is in her sixth month of pregnancy. It is usually said that she went to help her cousin. But this is an unconvincing explanation: how could a girl of twelve years (this was supposedly Mary’s age) presume to substitute expert and more mature friends and relatives that Elizabeth certainly had in Ain Karim? Her departure after three months is also not clear (Lk 1:56), that is exactly in the moment of birth, when her cousin would have greater need of assistance.
A third point—and is the most important: Mary and Elizabeth, instead of conversing easily, as happens among friends, exchange phrases carefully chosen from the Bible that allude to incidents and characters of the Old Testament with a finesse and really impressive expertise. More than just a chat between women of the people it seems to be a dialogue between two biblical scholars and well prepared biblical scholars.
Let us pay attention: the Gospel is not a collection of information, written to satisfy curiosity, but it is a text of catechesis. It aims to nourish the faith of the disciple and wants people to understand who is Jesus to whom we are called to give our adhesion. To grasp the message one must always keep in mind the language used in the time in which it was written and pay close attention to the references, sometimes explicit, sometimes a bit veiled, to the Old Testament.
After this introduction let’s figure out what Luke wants to teach us in today’s passage.
Let’s start from the apparently trivial and superfluous note, with which the story begins: she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (v. 40). If it dealt with the usual “good morning!”, the evangelist would not have stressed it. If he highlights it, it means that for him this greeting is significant and in fact, in the next verse, he recalls it: once she heard the greeting, the Baptist leapt for joy.
The Jews of that time like today’s, when they meet, they greet each other: Shalom-Peace. Peace means a combination of goods that God has promised to his people and that should materialize in the coming of the Messiah: “Justice will flower in his days and peace abound till the moon be no more” said the Psalmist (Ps 72:7). The prophet Isaiah called the Messiah, the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5).
On the lips of Mary the word peace is a solemn proclamation. It is the announcement that the awaited Messiah has come into the world and with him the reign of peace spoken of by the prophets has begun.
Like Mary on the mountains of Judea, as the angels—who in Bethlehem sang: “Peace on earth to those whom God loves” (Lk 2:14)—today the disciples of Christ speak only words of peace. “Whatever house you enter—Jesus recommended—first bless them, saying, ‘Peace to this house’” (Lk 10:5).
Elizabeth’s words to Mary: Blessed are you among women! are not original. In the Old Testament there are two women who are greeted in the same way: Yael (Jdg 5:24) and Judith (Jdt 13:18). What extraordinary things had they done? They were successful (unheard enterprise for women!) in annihilating the oppressors of their people. The Bible does not remember these stories, to approve war, but only to show, with examples comprehensible to the mentality of the time, how God usually accomplish wonderful feats using fragile and unsuitable tools.
Applying this same greeting to Mary, Luke states that she too belongs to the category of weak and poor instruments with whom God usually accomplishes his work of salvation. Through Mary, he has made the most extraordinary event in history: he gave his Son to the people.
Elizabeth continues: “How is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (v. 43). This sentence is also copied from the Old Testament. It was uttered by David in a very solemn occasion, when the ark of the covenant in which he believed the Lord was present was transferred to Jerusalem. In receiving it, the king exclaimed: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9).
There are also other significant details that put the visit of Mary in parallel with the story of the ark of the covenant. Both Mary and the ark remain three months in a house of Judea. The ark is received with dancing, shouts of joy, songs of celebration and is a source of blessings for the family that welcomes it (2 Sam 6:10-11) and Mary entering the house of Zechariah, causes the young John to leap for joy (he represents all the people of the Old Testament who rejoices at the coming of the Messiah).
It is thus quite clear that Luke intends to present Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant. Since God chose to become man, he no longer lives in buildings made of stone, in a temple, in a holy place, but in a woman’s womb. Mary’s Son is the same Lord.
Anywhere Mary—the new Ark of the Covenant—comes, there is an explosion of joy: the Baptist leaps for joy (v. 41), Elizabeth shouts her joy at being visited by the Lord (v. 42), the poor rejoice because the time of their liberation has come (vv. 46-48).
It is joy that characterizes the messianic times. Zechariah will experience it and will bless the Lord because “he has come and redeemed his people” (Lk 1:68). It will be announced by the angel to the shepherds: “I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10). Simeon will rejoice when he takes the child in his arms and contemplates with his eyes “salvation which you display for all the people to see, the light you will reveal to the nations” (Lk 2:29-32).
Welcoming the Lord who comes does not mean to give up joy but to throw open the doors to the true joy.
Mary is proclaimed blessed because “she believed that the Lord’s word would come true” (v. 45). How many promises God has made through the mouth of his prophets! But when these have been slow to realize, people begun to doubt the Lord’s faithfulness. They thought they had misunderstood or have been deceived. They began to put their trust in their thoughts, projects, choices and have gone through systematic failures. But Mary is blessed because she trusted God. She grew confident that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the word of the Lord would be fulfilled.
Blessed is she who believed. This is the first beatitude that is encountered in the Gospel of Luke. Take note that is formulated in the third person (not: Blessed are you …). This indicates that blessedness is not reserved for Mary, but should be extended to all those who trust the word of the Lord. The same blessedness is found at the end of John’s gospel. The Risen Lord addressed Thomas: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). Authentic faith—that which Mary shows—does not need visions, demonstrations, and verifications. It is based on listening to the Word and manifests itself in an unconditional adherence to this Word.
It is not easy to believe, especially when asked to go against “common sense.” It takes a lot of courage to believe that God’s promises to the builders of peace, the non-violent, those who offer the other cheek, those who do not take revenge, those who offer their lives for love, will be fulfilled. Mary shows that it is worth to trust the words of the Lord, always: “Truly blessed are those who hear the word of God, and keep it as well” (Lk 11:28).
The Gospel passage ends with the first verses of the hymn of praise to the Lord that Luke has put on the lips of Mary.
Mary is the first to realize the wonders worked by the Lord and sings them.
Everything starts from the look that God turns to her, a completely different look from that of people’s. God turns his eyes to those who count for nothing, despised, barren, unproductive, and in a pitiful state. Judith begged him thus: “You are a God of the humble, the support of the weak, the protector of the abandoned, the savior of those in despair” (Jdt 9:11).
Mary understood that God’s gaze is not drawn by merits or spiritual perfection, but by human need. He places himself among the poor and interprets their feelings of gratitude.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: