advent The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Where Does God Live?

2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8-11,16
ROMANS 16:25-27
LUKE 1:26-38

In many countries throughout the world the Christmas crèche is one of the most recognizable symbols of the season. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi and farm animals cluster around a trough of hay within which an image of the baby Jesus is placed to mark yet another celebration of his birth. Children, having their first experience of the crèche are apt to ask questions which cause adults to stop and think before attempting a response. One question in particular remains fresh in my memory. “Where does Jesus live for the rest of the year?”

Today, the selections from scripture call the gathered assembly to give some consideration to the thoughts which prompted that innocent question. Where, indeed, does God live? Is there a special place where God can be found? Can any place or any thing contain God’s presence?

By the time the Israelites returned from exile in Babylonia, their many experiences of God on their behalf, had led them to understand that there was nowhere that God was not present. “If I fly toward dawn, or settle across the sea even there you take hold of me, your right hand directs me . . . if I scale the heavens you are there! I plunge to the depths, you are there!” (Psalm 139: 8-10, ICEL translation). But before they arrived at this understanding, our ancestors in the faith recognized and sought God’s presence on mountains, in the desert cloud and pillar of fire, in the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant and later in the temple.

In today’s first reading, several traditions have been drawn together to illustrate the fact that God’s presence cannot be confined in the trappings of human architecture, however majestic or impressive. The author of 2 Samuel makes his point by means of a conversation between God and David, mediated by Nathan. David wished to give a sense of security to his own reign by establishing a permanent residence for the ark. A portable shrine thought to be a direct manifestation of God’s presence, the most striking thing about the ark was that it was virtually identified with God (Numbers 10:35-36). But David was to learn that his was not the prerogative for providing a house for the ark or of localizing the presence of God. God, who had led David to this point in his life and had provided for Israel’s needs for centuries was not to be domesticated. Moreover, it would be God, and not David, who would impart stability to what would become the dynasty of the messiah.

In the gospel for today, Luke invites his readers to be renewed in the mystery of God’s presence in the incarnation. Through the exchange between Mary and the messenger Gabriel, it becomes evident that God has chosen to become present to human history in a remarkable way. As Karl Rahner (The Content of Faith Crossroad Publishing Co., New York: 1992) explained, “The incarnation is not so much an event in space and time, simply to be accepted in its factualness, but is rather the historical supreme point of a transcendental, albeit free, relationship of God to that which is not divine . . . God himself enters into it (time and space, flesh and blood) in order to have his own personal history of love within it.” In his letter to the church at Rome (second reading), Paul explained that the personal history of God’s love was a mystery hidden for many ages. Indeed, this story had its prologue in the prophets and writings of the Hebrew scriptures and fully revealed in the person and mission of Jesus in the Christian scriptures.

As the story of God’s relationship with humanity continues to be told, God’s presence is ever in search of a dwelling place. During Advent, believers celebrate the fact that the unconfineable divine presence has chosen to dwell among us, indeed, to abide within us. In returning to that naive but profound question, “Where does Jesus live for the rest of the year?” . . . we have only to look to the faces to the right and left of us to find the answer. As symbolized by the crèche, God has chosen to be borne within the human heart. We for our part celebrate the privilege of being able to offer God a welcome and to be participants in God’s ever unfolding personal history of love.

2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8-11,16

Unlike his predecessor, Saul, David had succeeded in uniting the various factions among his people who pledged him their support and allegiance. Anointed first by the tribes of Judah near Hebron (2 Samuel 2:4), and then by the northern tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3), David further solidified his position by establishing his capital in the former Jebusite city of Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, he brought the ark of God in grand procession while “leaping and dancing before the Lord with abandon.” (2 Samuel 6:14)

The ark was thought to be a small (3'9" X 2'3") chest made of acacia wood and was purported to: contain the tablets of the law (Deuteronomy 10:2,5); have led the people through the desert (Numbers 14:44); have been carried around the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6); have been carried into battle to impart courage and brought into camp during military operations (1 Samuel 4:2-4). When David brought this symbol of God’s presence to his capital, he no doubt intended that the ark and the house he would build for it would function as proof of God’s approbation of his monarchy. But David was to learn that God alone would be the architect of the Davidic monarchy and the contractor for the temple. As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque (Guide For the Christian Assembly, Fides Publications, Notre Dame, IN: 1971) have noted, the narrative does not imply that God rejected the temple outright, “but signifies that the future of the people and the Davidic line will rest more on the covenant entered into by Yahweh and the kings than on the temple itself.”

Simmering beneath the surface of this seemingly simple narrative are opposing views concerning the existence of and the value of the temple. Pro- and anti monarchic voices can be heard as well as pro- and anti temple proponents. Those against both monarchy and temple yearned for the simpler times of the desert experience when worship was not burdened with formal ritual and when Yahweh was leader of the wandering tribes. Those in favor of both monarchy and temple believed that these institutions united and secured the position of the people politically and spiritually. As James W. Flanagan (“2 Samuel”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990) has noted, “Theologically and socially he (David) is a centrist; he remains a tribal leader over discrete Yahwist confederations and disparate non-Yahwist peoples, but he also embodies overarching authority.”

In the verses which complete this excerpted reading (vv.8-11, 16) the hand of a later Deuteronomic editor is in evidence. Yahweh’s assurance that David’s authority will be secure comes in the declaration that God would build a house, i.e. a dynasty, which would be a house of rest and a kingdom of everlasting proportions. In this declaration, there is a recapitulation of all the promises to the patriarchs. To be planted in a fixed place (v. 10) without disturbance from enemies (v. 11) and the assurance of an everlasting reign (v. 16) were the divine covenantal pledges that had first encouraged the wandering tribes to persevere onward through the desert to the infiltration and conquest of Canaan. These same pledges, reinstated during the Davidic monarchy, became the source of a messianic hope, that was renewed with the birth of each of David’s successors.

Israel returned to these promises again and again, finding within them consolation and encouragement when the political succession of the Davidic dynasty was threatened. Even when the messianic line appeared to have been severed (587 B.C.E.) Israel remembered these promises and hoped that God would again restore the house of David.

Whereas the Essene community, preparing the way of the Lord in the desert near Qumran, looked for a “shoot of David who would stand up with the Interpreter of the Torah in the end of days” (Cave 4, Midrash on 2 Samuel 7), the early Christians realized that the promises to David had been fulfilled in Jesus. Each Christmas, we mark and celebrate that fulfillment. Jesus is born, his dynasty of salvation stands firm. God lives forever in our midst.

ROMANS 16:25-27

In anticipation of his first visit to the house churches of Rome, Paul wrote a lengthy letter from Corinth. One of the most profound pieces of theology in the New Testament, Paul’s correspondence to the Christians of Rome has been called his “testamentary”, viz. his theological last will and testament, or the distillation of the very essence of his beliefs.

In Romans, Paul set forth his doctrine of justification by contrasting the plight of humankind, without Christ (1:18-3:20) with the blessedness of redeemed humanity, set right with God, i.e., justified, by the saving cross of Christ (3:21-5:21). Paul then proceeded to explore the quality of life in the Spirit to which Christians are called because of their union with Christ in baptism (6:1-8:39). After departing from his major theme to lament the fact that most of his Jewish contemporaries had not yet responded to the good news of salvation (9:1-11:36), Paul offered a series of paranetic principles and admonitions concerning Christian living (12:1-15:13). After some remarks about his future plans, which included a trip to Jerusalem with money for the poor collected from various churches and then a visit to Rome (15:14-33), the letter concludes with a personal greeting to those Paul knew in Rome (16:1-23) and a doxology the verses of which comprise today’s second reading. Some suggest that Paul’s letter to Rome originally ended at 15:33 and that chapter sixteen was a separate piece of correspondence written by Paul to recommend Phoebe as minister and deaconess to the church at Ephesus. Other scholars, citing differences in literary style and vocabulary believe that this concluding chapter of Romans was not genuinely Pauline but the work of a later, non-Pauline author/editor. Joseph Fitzmyer (Spiritual Exercises Based on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paulist Press, New York: 1995) has noted, “Even if the doxology is not an authentic Pauline composition, it is a fitting conclusion to the epistle, for it catches the Apostle’s (sic) message in it: from of old, God in his wisdom has bound up salvation with Christ Jesus, and the mystery of this wise decision has now been disclosed.”

Within this doxology, readers will discover a new perspective with which the early Christians began to appreciate the Hebrew scriptures. Paul, or his editor, believed that the mystery (God’s saving plan) which had been hidden for many ages (v. 25) and which was gradually revealed through the prophets (v. 26) could only be fully understood in light of Jesus’ advent. Jesus, who became flesh to live among humankind and to reveal the good news of salvation, was the key which unlocked and made sense of all the prophecies, oracles and hopes that had preceded his appearance. Jesus was the prism which refracted the brilliance of the mystery into understandable and livable truths.

Moreover, the doxology indicates that the parameters of the mystery were to extend beyond Judaism. Because of Jesus’ advent, the mystery, as well as the writings of the prophets which announced it, would no longer be the special heritage of one people but of all peoples. Gentiles, also, would be privy to the universal repercussions of the gospel. God’s transcendent presence made immanent in Jesus has obviated every barrier of separation. No longer would it be gentile or Jew, slave or free, rich or poor, black or white, male or female -- in the now of Jesus’ appearance, all who believe are one.

Believing beneficiaries of this mystery are called to respond to God by heeding Paul’s exhortation to glorify God. In only a couple of days, when this assembly returns to this place to celebrate the mystery of God who has come to live among us . . . the song which will give fullest expression to our celebration will be “Glory! Glory to God in the highest!”

LUKE 1:26-38

In some countries of the world, it has become customary to send a birthday card congratulating the person who is marking another year of life, and although Christmas is often referred to as Jesus’ birthday, no one is so naive as to mail cards to him. Rather, believers celebrate the Christmas event by mailing cards to one another. Upon reflection (and without a nod to the commercial pressures exerted by the greeting card industry), this seems an appropriate custom -- particularly when the cards are genuine in their expression of the true spirit of the season. The birth of Jesus Christ is the source of our joy; the annual remembrance of the coming of God into human history gives rise to the mutual greetings we extend. By our cards and gifts, we are, saying to one another, “Congratulations; we are the people with whom God has chosen to live!”

Today’s gospel, taken from the Lucan infancy narrative is a greeting card of sorts, a birth announcement, addressed to an expectant world. A son is to be born; his name shall be Jesus. But, unlike contemporary birth announcements, which usually detail only the physical particulars (weight, length) of the child, and the day and time of the birth, the news of Jesus’ birth was accompanied by an indication of his purpose and mission in life.

Similar examples of this literary genre can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures (birth announcements of Isaac, Sampson, Samuel) and in the secular literature of the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Plutarch’s treatment of Coriolanus). However, Luke’s annunciation of the birth of Jesus makes it clear that this unique nativity proclamation was far superior to other stories of its genre. Luke used a similar literary technique in telling of the birth of Jesus’ precursor, John (Luke 1:5-25); he created two announcements of equal lengths, which contained the same basic elements. But, as Raymond E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, Image Books, Doubleday, New York: 1979), has explained, Luke’s parallel accounts underscore the wondrous nature of Jesus’ birth (not born in usual fashion) and the unique but subordinate position of John.

Whereas Jesus would be “great and Son of the Most High God” (1:32), John was described as one who would be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). And while John was conceived of the union of Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:13), Jesus’ birth was attributed by the evangelist to the power of the Most High (1:35). John’s mission would be to “prepare a people fit for the Lord” (1:17) but Jesus would be the promised son of David whose rule and kingdom would never end (1:32-33). What God had pledged to David (first reading), concerning his everlasting dynasty, was to come to full flower in Jesus’ person and mission.

In the greeting of the angelic messenger, “Rejoice, O, highly favored daughter! The Lord is with you” (v. 28), Luke signals to his readers that the era of the messiah is dawning. Zephaniah (3:14-17) had extended a similar greeting to Israel, daughter of Zion, declaring, “Yahweh, your king is in your midst!” The prophet and his contemporaries believed that the greeting would be fully realized, i.e. God would be truly with the people, when the messiah finally appeared. By addressing Mary in this manner, the angelic messenger was, in effect, declaring that the prophecies of Zephaniah and Isaiah (7:14, Immanuel-God-with-us!) were being fulfilled.

Mary’s acceptance of the birth announcement, “I am the maidservant . . . let it be done to me as you say” (v. 38) casts her in the same light as that of the remnant or poor ones of Israel (anawim) whose lives were lived in total trust and dependence on God. Mary’s faith, as described by Luke, makes her realistic and appealing; readers of the gospel are told that she was “deeply troubled and wondered” at the message revealed to her (1:29). She questioned (1:34) and at times did not understand (2:50) but, all the while she trusted and pondered in her heart (2:51) as to her role and the role of her son in God’s saving plan.

From the outset, Luke offers the figure of Mary as a model disciple, i.e. as one who hears the word of God and makes a conscious decision to live accordingly. Advent believers need not summon any maudlin sentimentality for her. Mary worked through the difficulties in her life; despite confusion and without fully comprehending all the ramifications, she remained committed, in faith. Because of her faith, she had the joy of knowing where God lives.

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