Fourth Sunday of Advent - a reflection

Monday, December 20, 2021 - 10:30

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

This year we have almost the whole week for reflecting on these Sunday readings. So often this 4th Sunday gets rather lost with Christmas so close. It so happens too that the readings for our year C of the three year cycle are especially important for our reflections on the incarnation we will be celebrating. This is the great mystery by which our infinite God became a finite human being. That joining of God to human in Jesus which is the incarnation takes us to the heart of Christianity. It is a mystery on which the Church has pondered and reflected from the very beginning and one on which we must continue to reflect and pray ourselves for our own age. Always there is a need to keep a balance, there are times when Jesus’ divinity has emphasised but at other times it has been his humanity. In recent centuries, the emphasis has been on his divinity, appropriate perhaps to an age of kings and emperors. Today the emphasis is on his humanity and solidarity with suffering humanity. 

This is a change of emphasis from Christmas, God becoming man for us, to Easter, the man who is revealed to be God by his cross and resurrection. His descending and ascending is perhaps best described in the hymn quoted by St Paul in the letter to the Philippians. This Sunday it is the letter to the Hebrews which highlights the integration of the mystery. This is a reading which is read on the feast of the Annunciation, the Annunciation being the Gospel for this Sunday in the other two Sundays of the three year cycle.

As I mentioned last week, the New Testament generally quotes from the Old Testament in Greek rather than the Hebrew of our modern Bibles. The line in the reading from Hebrews has a quote from the psalm is quite odd in the Hebrew. However, Hebrews is following the Greek which says “a body you have prepared for me”. This must be the ideal quotation for describing the incarnation and making the point that Hebrews wishes to make. The comparison being made is that the sacrifices of old were ultimately ineffective in overcoming sin. The Saviour comes in the flesh of a human body and becomes representative of humanity uniquely able to respond in perfect obedience to God: “Here I am, I am coming to do your will.” Thus the life of the human body whose birth we will soon be celebrating will come to its climax on the cross. We need to celebrate the one mystery in parts so as to enable us to contemplate the whole. Spanish makes the point because pascua is used for both Easter and Christmas.

The body though must have a mother. This fourth Sunday finally brings to the fore Mary who is expecting her first born. A reminder of the Church’s teaching about her and her Son is useful though this is about more doctrine than usual in these reflections. In 431, the Council of Ephesus declared her Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. This responded to a need to protect Jesus’ divinity. Then twenty years later that the Council of Chalcedon spoke of Christ as one person in two natures. This is the orthodox view to which we all adhere though other Churches who were not represented at Chalcedon are now accepted as orthodox, notably Copts and Armenians. All this is highly complicated, the ancient Greeks loved their philosophical debates but a basic awareness is important for all of us.

The weekday readings this week, beginning today Sunday, present the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Following a prologue, of which more in a few weeks time, Luke tells a series of incidents imitating the style of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. I can only encourage you to follow these incidents day by day this week. The Sunday reading is the Annunciation of John to his Father Zechariah, then Monday is the Annunciation of Jesus to Mary. The visitation is the Gospel this Sunday as well as Tuesday, the moment when the two mothers and two babies come together. Then there is Mary’s Magnificat on Wednesday, the birth of John on Thursday and the Benedictus canticle of Zechariah on Friday, Christmas Eve. The pattern of alternate episodes between John and Jesus will be followed by the birth of Jesus which we will be our subject next weekend. The whole story is told showing the superiority of Jesus over John. More importantly it acts as an overture to the whole Gospel introducing the themes which Luke will be stressing. The evangelists will have had traditions available to them, the basics are common to both Matthew and Mark. They were though free to mould their story for their own purposes.

Last Sunday we hear the central incident of the story as the two babies meet. This incident is usually known as the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth but what they say to each other depends on their respective babies. The scene opens with John leaping for joy in his mother’s womb and that leads to Elizabeth three times proclaiming Mary as blessed. The effect is to provide a commentary about Mary herself following the Annunciation. It is in particular a commentary about Mary herself who is the focus of the scene.

Mary therefore arrives at the house of Zechariah though the scene is about two women, and she greets Elizabeth. We are prepared for Elizabeth's praise of Mary by John in Elizabeth's womb leaping in recognition of the child in Mary's womb. John's role as the forerunner is anticipated. Elizabeth is now filled with the Holy Spirit who is the driving force behind all that is happening in this story. 

Her first two "blesseds" then indicate praise of Mary and her child as recognised by Elizabeth's child. Already we have the unborn Jesus being called "Lord". This will be Luke's most common title for Jesus.; it was the title used by Christians for Jesus following the resurrection. There is also the note of joy from the unborn John.

The third “blessed” which follows is presented as the climax of the Sunday reading. This blessing celebrates a way of life, one which is fulfilled by Mary as a woman of faith, total trust in God. She would be among those about whom her son will comment later in the Gospel: "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it". Mary is thus being portrayed as a model disciple of her son. She is someone who is totally obedient to the word of God, just as he would be as portrayed in the reading from Hebrews.

Following the cut-off of the reading, there is Mary’s response, her praise of God, known as the Magnificat. Finally, Mary goes home just before the birth of John. That might seem strange but it is necessary for the evangelist to remove Jesus from the scene before John is born. The body prepared for the Saviour is therefore enters into a real human family, living and dying a full human life in order to obey the will of God his Father.