|The Sánchez Archives
FOURTH SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
Come, O Come!
As the days wind down toward Christmas, the business of gifts will be uppermost on the minds of some of us. Unfortunately, this preoccupation will be exacerbated by the last-ditch efforts of a crass commercialism that daily reminds us the countdown. . . only three more shopping days til Christmas! In an effort to lift the hearts and minds and energies of believers to a more authentic celebration of this season, the church puts before the gathered assembly a sort of countdown of its own. Beginning on December 17, one of a series of seven antiphons is sung each day at the Magnificat of the Divine Office. Known as the O Antiphons because each begins with the joyful interjection O, these special chants enumerate the gifts of God to humankind while counting down the days toward Christmas. Because the majority of the people in the pew do not have the time or opportunity to pray the Divine Office, it may prove helpful to familiarize them with these wonderful ancient prayers.
Similarly structured, each antiphon is comprised of: an invocation to the Messiah with a title inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures; an amplification of that title stating an attribute of God with which humankind has been gifted; and an appeal which always commences with the invitation, Come! While the titles of Christ can be traced to prayers written by Pope St. Damascus in the mid-fourth century C.E., the antiphons, as such, have been accredited to an anonymous cantor who lived in the late seventh or early eighth century C.E.
As each antiphon is prayed, believers are reminded that the most important gifts of this season are the ones that God alone can give:
December 17: O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God, you tend to all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come, show your people the way to salvation.
December 18: O Lord and Leader of Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush and who gave him the law of life, come with outstretched arms to save us.
December 19: O Root of Jesse, raised up as a saving sign for all peoples. Come, without delay.
December 20: O Key of David who opens and no one closes, Come, open the gates of death and lead your captive people from the darkness into freedom.
December 21: O Morning Star and Sun of Justice, radiant dawn and splendor of eternal light. Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
December 22: O King of all and joy of every human heart, Come and save all whom you have made.
December 23: O Emmanuel, God-with-us, Come and set us free.
Scholars have determined that the inverse order of the initials of each invocation (Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, Emmanuel) constitute the acrostic ERO CRAS. This has been interpreted as the response of Christ to the faithful who have daily called out to him: Tomorrow I shall be there!
With this assurance, believers can eagerly count down the days toward Christmas. We can rejoice with Micah (first reading) in the knowledge that the Lord who was born in Bethlehem will always be there to rule and shepherd his people. We can give thanks with the author of Hebrews (second reading) that he has come to establish a new covenant in his own blood and that through that blood we are also sanctified. Finally, we can celebrate with Mary and Elizabeth (Lucan gospel) because we have been blessed; the Lord has indeed come to us.
Bethlehem has been venerated as the family home of David (1 Samuel 16:1; 17:12) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Son of David, since the late first century C.E. So popular was the site that emperor Hadrian installed there a shrine to Adonis-Tamur (Phoenician patron of vegetation) in order to discourage Christian pilgrims from visiting it. In the fourth century, Constantine had a basilica built on the site, and its choir, repaired by Justinian in the sixth century C.E., stands precisely over the grotto where Jesus was thought to have been born. The thousands of visitors who travel to Bethlehem each year can admire five original naves of the Constantine basilica which remain intact and have been integrated into the present structure of the Church of the Nativity.
Modern day Bethlehem, which means house of bread in Hebrew (beth lehem), and house of meat (beit lahm,) is considerably more famous than it was in ancient times. As the prophet Micah attests in todays first reading, it was too small to be among the clans of Judah (the NJB has least of the clans). Nevertheless, and in keeping with the divine modus operandi so evident throughout the scriptures, God chooses that which humankind regards as insignificant to work wonders. From tiny Bethlehem would come the Lord and savior of the world.
An eighth century B.C.E. contemporary of Isaiah, who prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca 742-887 B.C.E.), Micah shared his peoples disillusionment with their anointed kings and encouraged them to hope for a future, worthy messiah. Rather than tolerate the sins of the leaders (3:1-12), the corruption of the judicial system (3:11; 7:3), idolatry (5:10-14), arrogance and greed (1:10-18; 2:1-2, 8), and inauthentic worship (1:7; 3:5, 11), the promised messiah would establish righteousness for all (v. 3). Like the young David (1 Samuel 16) and like Yahweh (Psalm 23), the coming one would exercise his power and majesty in attentively shepherding his people. Those who had been scattered by the wolves of war and misfortune would be gathered together and granted peace and security (v. 4) under the auspices of him whose rule would extend to the ends of the earth (v. 5).
The Christian community from its earliest days to the present has recognized that the coming of Jesus and his pastoral mission of peace initiated the realization of Micahs messianic promises. Until those promises are completely fulfilled at Jesus second coming, it devolves upon believers to bear their share of responsibility for peace and justice in the world.
Although this pericope from Hebrews with its sacrificial theme seems quite inappropriate considering the ambiance of joy which ordinarily characterizes these last few days before Christmas, it does, nevertheless provide the gathered assembly with a sort of reality check. After all, Jesus was born into the world as its long awaited savior and the Hebrews author serves us well by offering his/her readers a summary of Christian soteriology. Also proclaimed on the feast of the Incarnation (March 25), this text underscores the necessary connection between Bethlehem and Golgotha. Should the creche, with its emphasis on the newborn child distract us, the Hebrews author reminds us that the intended goal of Jesus birth in the crèche was his saving and sacrificial death on the cross.
Before Jesus, keepers of the first covenant sought to work out their salvation through a system of offering and sacrifices. However, Jesus, on coming into the world (v. 5) effected salvation through the offering of his body once for all (v. 10). Quoting from Psalm 40:7-8, the early Christian author named the various classes of sacrificial offerings: peace, cereal, holocaust, sin and guilt. These had been prescribed and their liturgies were ritualized by law but their effectiveness had been obviated with the appearance of Jesus. Whereas the law had been able to offer only a skia (Greek) or shadow of the blessings to come (10:1), only with Jesus did the eikon or real image (or portrait, or, in contemporary terms, a photograph) of the heavenly realities become manifest. Eikon or image can be understood as that form through which the essence or true nature of a thing is revealed so that it can be readily perceived by the senses and grasped by the intellect. Christ, by his perfect, unique and unrepeatable sacrifice made available to a saved humanity, not shadows, but the true form of worship; by the gift of his obedient will, he inaugurated the second (v. 8) and everlasting covenant.
As William Barclay (The Letter to the Hebrews, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) has noted, the writer of Hebrews wasnt alone in identifying an obedient will as the only true sacrifice. His theological insights placed him in the good company of Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22), the psalmists (Psalm 50:14; 51:16-17), Hosea (6:6), Isaiah (1:11-20) and Micah (6:6-8). It is in this aspect of his sacrifice, i.e. in the gift of his obedient will to God that Jesus is to be imitated by all who call themselves Christian.
Precious little is known for certain about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and yet, in some circles, even this precious little has been skewed to such a degree that she has become a source of divisiveness among certain groups of believers. Those searching for balance and perspective with regard to this unique woman need only refer to Luke. Never featured on her own, Marys importance in the gospel and her role in Gods plan of salvation history are always contingent upon the person and mission of Jesus. As Reginald Fuller once noted, The Mariology of scripture is grounded in Christology (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1974).
Because of her relationship to Jesus, Mary is declared blessed three times in todays gospel pericope (vv. 42, 42, 45). In a double clause, blessed are you . . . and blessed is the fruit, and with the passive participle eulogemene (blessed), Luke has arranged the first two pronouncements of Marys blessedness in coordination. This structure, which is Semitic in style, was used to indicate a relationship of subordination. In other words, Mary is proclaimed as blessed because of Jesus.
In the third statement of Marys blessedness (v. 45) Luke used the adjective makaria. As Luke Timothy Johnson explained (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991), makaria can mean happy but that misses the resonance of the biblical tradition which uses the word to denote the condition of righteous existence before God, e.g. Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 83:4; 93:12). Recall the fact that later in the Lucan gospel (11:27) Mary will be declared blessed yet again. . . Blessed is the womb that bore you. . . Remember also, Jesus correction, Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. As depicted by Luke, Mary is blessed on both counts, first for her relationship to Jesus, as mother of the word incarnate, and second for her relationship to him as a disciple and keeper of his word.
Also worth noting in this short narrative is the underlying motif of the ark of the covenant. Important in that it was a receptacle in which the Torah or tablets of the law were thought to be contained (Deuteronomy 10:2, 5), the Ark was one of the chief symbols of the presence of God with the people. A portable shrine, the Ark went before the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 10:33) and was used for oracular inquiries (1 Samuel 14:18). The tent where the Ark was kept was guarded by an attendant (2 Samuel 6:17) and was revered as a sanctuary (Numbers 10:35-36). As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque (Guide For the Christian Assembly, Fides Pub. Inc., Notre Dame, IN: 1971) have pointed out, todays gospel narrative of the visitation is reminiscent of the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Like the Ark, Mary journeyed in the direction of Jerusalem to Judah (v. 39 = 2 Samuel 6:2). Both journeys were marked by joyful manifestations (vv. 42, 44 = 2 Samuel 6:2). The sacred leaping and dancing before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:12) could be compared to Johns stirring, or, more literally, leaping (eskirtesin) for joy in Elizabeths womb. Just as the Ark rested in the house of Obed-edom for three months, (2 Samuel 6:10-11), Mary stayed for the same period in the home of Zechariah (Luke 1:56). Both Mary (v. 41) and the Ark (2 Samuel 6:11-12) were a source of blessing for those around them. Luke makes his analogy even more compelling by telling of Elizabeths glad cry (v. 43) in words that virtually echo those of David standing before the Ark: How can the Ark of the Lord come to me? (2 Samuel 6:9).
Through Mary, mother of Jesus, God has become present to the world. As Ark of the New Covenant, Mary is the model par excellence of what every believer is called to be, the dwelling place of the divine presence on earth. With her, like her, we are blessed among women and men.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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