4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT.
24th December 2017
Deacon Tony van Vuuren
Here we are celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent and also Christmas Eve on the same day! I feel like I’m being cheated out of a week’s worth of Advent!
Mary has hardly had time to absorb the news of her pregnancy, and baby Jesus is about to nestle into her loving arms, at least liturgically. A reminder to us that the mysteries we celebrate and reflect on are interconnected and timeless.
In the first reading we find King David, having overcome his enemies and secured his kingdom, relaxing and dreaming of building a more suitable “dwelling for God”.
It sounded very praiseworthy and to begin with the prophet Nathan was persuaded to give the project his blessing. But David’s real motive was to glorify himself and to bolster the institution of the monarchy. What he was really planning to do, in effect, was to assume control of Israel’s religion, to contain and institutionalise God, so that the royal court could determine the way that people understood God and the way he acted in history. It was an attempt to use God to reinforce his own position as king.
According to the authors of the book of Samuel, God reacted to this by reasserting his freedom. God refuses to play up to David’s man-made image of what God should be like. Instead he reveals what he’s really like and what he wills through the words of the prophet Nathan by dissociating himself from David’s royal religion. It doesn’t matter how many other kings build fancy temples for their gods, he says. Not this God, and therefore not this King.
In the gospel passage we find Luke relating another instance of God acting in history, not in the grandiose and majestic way that we might think is appropriate for the deity, but in his own free and unpredictable way.
It so happened that at the time when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his Son the Messiah, the latest King; King Herod, was in the middle of building another vast Temple in Jerusalem.
Again, although the ostensible idea was to glorify God, Herod had his own political reasons for building a new Temple. And while all that was going on, God’s greatest revelation of himself was taking place somewhere else, far away from Herod’s inflated schemes, in conditions that were far removed from what conventional religion would have considered appropriate or acceptable.
First of all, God chose to appear, and to become human, not in Jerusalem, in the great capital and religious centre of Israel, but in Nazareth, a tiny, obscure town of about 150 people in Galilee.
From the point of view of respectable religion, the town had a bad name. The people there had a reputation of being lapsed, as we might say, and of being infected with pagan ideas and practices. That was why later on in Jesus’ ministry, people laughed when they heard that he came from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the rhetorical question.
Second, the fact that God chose to communicate his plan of salvation first of all to a woman would have been offensive to pious and respectable Jews of the time. In Jewish society at that time women didn’t have any real rights of citizenship or legal status. Last of all, the idea of the long-awaited Messiah being conceived outside of marriage – which is after all what happened – would also have been an affront to conventional attitudes.
Even in the slack religious atmosphere of Nazareth Mary would have been in danger of being stoned as an adulteress, if Joseph hadn’t promised to marry her so quickly.
So the lesson of these readings, it seems to me, is a lesson about God’s freedom to act in the way that he thinks best. God isn’t compelled to act through channels that we deem appropriate, or appear in the places we dictate.
Whenever God has wanted to communicate something more about himself, he’s never felt that he had to conform to our human expectations of how he should reveal himself. He’s always worked in circumstances, and through the people, that he chose. In doing so he has often overturned self-serving human notions of what the divine character is like.
It’s a warning, in a sense, against every tendency towards becoming a religious bureaucrat or a religious busybody: that so often, while we’re busy constructing our modern versions of David’s temple, or Herod’s temple, trying to control the way that God is presented to people, with the real motive of glorifying ourselves, God is active in another, unexpected place, with a completely different set of people, carrying out his real work of salvation.
Mary had no idea what her “yes” would mean for the future, but she said “yes” because she knew that God’s grace would sustain her through whatever that might be. As we ponder how fully we are able to say “yes” at this point in our lives, let us ask our Blessed Mother to help us be all we are meant to be, relying on God’s grace as she did. Inspired by her example, may we have the grace and courage to respond openly and whole-heartedly to God’s invitation to serve him.
Yes, Mary’s life was difficult, but she was right: God’s grace will sustain us. That is true through the hardest of times as well as when the smallest of things challenge our peacefulness the most.