Mary and Elizabeth Meet, Moretto da Brescia,
early 16th century, Nationalmuseum (Sweden)
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2021
We are now in “late Advent” when the focus is clearly on the birth of Jesus. The first line of our opening prayer reminds us that through God’s grace an angel had made known to us “the incarnation of Christ your Son”. The preface of the Mass says that:
all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him
with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.
Our first reading from the prophet Micah tells us that Bethlehem is more than just a small insignificant village:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Our gospel relates the story of Mary’s Visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39–45) Yet I find the second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews more interesting as it urges us to contemplate the meaning of the second part of today’s opening prayer that in the Eucharist we are “brought to the glory of his Resurrection.”
The letter to the Hebrews was our second reading for several weeks this fall. We noted then that it was written in exceptionally good Greek by someone who had a firm grasp of the Jewish thought and practice. It was most likely composed in Rome for Roman converts to Christianity from Judaism. The author of Hebrews recognized that his audience become Christians because they believed it would make them better Jews. For them Jesus fulfilled the requirements for being the Messiah albeit in a way that no one would have predicated or expected.
This allowed for a more expansive view of salvation; the mysterious call of the prophets that all peoples would worship the God of Israel was made clear and practical. But the promise of the reign of God where the good and the bad would be separated in the view of all was irritatingly postponed. Also, they are now being persecuted for being Christians and asking themselves if their conversion was a wise decision.
The section we read today from Hebrews is the author’s answer and is a good summation of many of the themes we read last month.
The passages immediately before what we read today reflect the contemporary philosophical ideas of the author’s day:
Since the law has only a shadow
of the good things to come,
and not the very image of them,
it can never make perfect
those who come to worship
by the same sacrifices
that they offer continually each year
Humanity was created to live in perfect harmony with God as in the Garden of Eden. The worship in the old law revealed the love and concern of God but only in shadow. It was real but it could not establish an intimate permanent relationship with him. In their world this relationship was a “covenant” which made a person part of the family. A chieftain or clan leader would make a covenant with a more powerful leader to pledge his allegiance to him. This was by sacrificing an animal and then sharing a meal. This could be an once forever covenant or a transactional one.
The author of this letter is telling the Jews that they previously had only a transactional temporary covenant which needed to be repeated. Although God was always faithful even when they were not, they were never fully an intimate member of that family. We saw repeatedly that primary sacrifice of the year was the offering by the high priest on the day of atonement for the sins of the whole people. As he was himself sinful, that sacrifice needed to be offered every year.
Jesus could offer a perfect sacrifice to form a perfect covenant because, among many reasons examined in this letter, his sacrifice is offered purely and self-consciously. As often does in Hebrews, a Psalm is quoted:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,
Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”
(Heb 10:5–7, quoting Psalm 40:7–9)
For the Psalmist and the Old Testament prophets, sacrifice was more than the mechanical action of animal killing with appropriate prayers. The intention and dedication of those offering it were essential, God will only accept an offering which reflects sincere faith.
What is here translated as “but a body you prepared for me” was originally “ears you dug for me” the ability to hear and obey the LORD’S voice. The author is taking this further with incarnation. He continues with “as is written in the scroll” as was prophesied an obedient servant will come to do God’s will and offer perfect Sacrifice. This is Jesus.
Jesus as the god/man with a perfect will “intention” can offer a sacrifice which truly changes us.
By this “will,” we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb 10:10)
The Greek word here translated as consecrated (hagiazō) might be better understood as “sanctified” or “made holy,” Holy is being set apart, consecrated as sharing in God’s very own life. Truly a covenant in which, we are part of God’s family intimately and forever.
This passage is read at Mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent when we directly prepare for the Lord’s birth. This year the Gospel speaks of Mary and Elizabeth, other years of Joseph, but the point is always that all disciples of Jesus need to be obedient as Jesus was to the will of God. God has spoken to us in the scripture, in the marginalized and those who need him, and has given us the Eucharist to truly celebrate him.
Let us experience our covenant with God, let us show our family resemblance that what Elizabeth says to Mary could be said of us:
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.