4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Joseph Levine; December 20, 2020
Not all Scripture is created equal. In revealing to us the plan of divine providence, Scripture contains a record of God’s promises in the Old Testament and the New Testament shows us their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Today’s 1st reading provides us with one of the most important promises in the entire Old Testament. Today’s Gospel shows us the beginning of its fulfillment. These are two very important Scripture passages.
If we are to understand the fulfillment, we need to understand the promise. To understand the promise, we need to know something of its background, in which is hidden another of God’s great promises.
God had promised Abraham a land and offspring and that in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. (cf. Gen 12:1-3; 17:4-8; 22:16-18) In fulfillment of that promise he sent Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, establish a covenant with them on Mt. Sinai, to lead them through the desert, until finally Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into the promised land, the land of Israel.
That brought about a first fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. Nevertheless, for many generations the people of Israel were assailed by and dominated by their enemies. They did not have peace in the land they had received from God.
That leads us to the opening of today’s 1st reading: When King David was settled in his palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies on every side. Finally, Israel was at peace under the kingship of David, who had established his palace in the city of Jerusalem, whose name means something like ‘the vision of peace’.
Nevertheless, David realizes that something is missing. The city has no temple. He wants to build a temple, a dwelling place of God, a place in which God will be worshipped. God, however, both rejects his desire and promises its future fulfillment.
The Lord promises David that he will establish his ‘house’, or royal dynasty, that he will give him an heir, who will relate to God as to a ‘father’; the heir of David will build a temple for the Lord (omitted in today’s reading), and the Lord will establish his throne and kingdom forever.
God’s promises to Abraham and David are the most fundamental promises in the whole of the Old Testament. Those promises are themselves rooted in a prophecy of salvation, heard by Adam and Eve after God had called them to account for their sin. They heard the words of God directed to the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:15)
The promises of God are great and mysterious and very powerful. They are like the grain of mustard seed in the parable of Jesus: It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Mt 13:32) The promises of God are the hidden power that shapes the whole course of human history. Moreover, each historical fulfillment brings with it a new promise, or a sort of revelation of a greater fulfillment yet to come. By means of his promises, God, who owes nothing to any creature, puts himself in our debt after a fashion.
In any case, returning to the promise he made to David: David’s son, Solomon did indeed build a great temple in Jerusalem and the house of David was established and reigned in Judah for some four centuries, despite the infidelity and sins of many of the kings. Still, four centuries is not ‘forever’. Yet after four centuries it all seemed to come to an end when, on account of the sins of the kings and the people, the Babylonians came, conquered the city of Jerusalem, burned the temple, and carried the people off into exile. (cf. 2 Kg 25:1-12)
That took place in 586 BC. It appeared that the promise of God had failed.
The Psalmist, after calling to mind God’s promises to David, as we heard in today’s responsorial Psalm, laments, Now thou hast cast off and rejected, thou art full of wrath against thy anointed. Thou hast renounced the covenant with thy servant; thou hast defiled his crown in the dust. (Ps 89:38-39)
That word ‘anointed’ translates the Hebrew word ‘messiah’, which is translate into Greek as ‘christ’. The kings of Judah, the descendants of David, were anointed, the were messiahs, they were christs. After the destruction of the messianic kingdom of David, God taught the people to await a greater fulfillment of the promise; God taught the people to wait for the coming of the Anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah, the One who would bring all the promises of God to their definitive fulfillment.
Before the destruction of the Kingdom of David, in the midst of a crisis in which it seemed already on the brink of destruction, through the prophet Isaiah, God made another promise, that is now very well-known: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name ‘Emmanuel’. (Is 7:14) The name which means “God-with-us”. The Hebrew word used for ‘Virgin’ was a little ambiguous so before the reality came to pass the meaning and importance of the prophecy was not very clear.
In any case, in the centuries between the destruction of the Kingdom of David and the birth of Jesus, the hope of Israel became centered on awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of David, who would deliver Israel anew from her enemies, re-establish forever the Kingdom of David, and rebuild the Temple of the Lord.
Those centuries of darkness, waiting, and hope, set the stage for today’s Gospel when the Angel Gabriel is sent by God to a virgin, full of grace, betrothed to a man of the house of David and tells her, Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Never before had a messenger from God announced the fulfillment of such a great promise and the recipient of the message was the Virgin Mary. Her ‘yes’ to the Angel opened the door to that fulfillment. Moreover, when God brings his promises to fulfillment, the fulfillment is always greater than the promise itself, or greater than what might have been anticipated. In the end God never disappoints but exceeds our expectations and desires.
The Messiah was indeed to be born of a Virgin, through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Messiah was not merely the Son of David, he did not merely have an intimate filial relationship with God, he was the very Son of God, begotten of the Father before the creation of the world. After the angel answered her question, Mary would have grasped that part of the message quite well.
What might have still remained hidden from her would have been how the Son of God and Son of David would come to establish the throne of David forever. Bit by bit she would come to learn that her Son would not establish the throne of David on earth but would, through his death and resurrection and ascension into heaven, lift the throne of David up with himself, and establish it and the right hand of his Father in heaven. The fulfillment was far beyond anything anyone in David’s time could ever have dreamed, unless he received a special prophetic enlightenment from God.
From the heavenly throne of David, Jesus rules his Church, the Temple and dwelling place he has built for himself upon earth, until he returns to bring all the promises of God to completion beyond anything we can imagine or conceive in the new and eternal Jerusalem.
The fulfillment of the promise of the Old Testament, which already took place in the birth of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, is a down-payment and guarantee of the fulfillment of the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem. Moreover, just as the birth of Jesus Christ exceeded the expectations of the Old Testament, the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem will exceed all of our expectations.
The Blessed Virgin Mary who received the announcement of the fulfillment from the message of the Angel, in whose womb the fulfillment began, who had already received the benefit of that fulfillment in her Immaculate Conception, which made her to be ‘full of grace’, has also received beforehand the complete fulfillment in her glorious Assumption into heaven. As a result, she stands always as a witness, a sign and a guarantee of the fulfillment of God’s promises. She tells us that the serpent’s head has been crushed and will be crushed. She tells us that the Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, has entered into the heavenly inheritance, the promised land of the Resurrection, giving her already to share in that inheritance. She is the Star of the Sea, who guides us to the fulfillment of that same promise.