Frances writes on the readings for next Sunday :- Our final week of Advent reflection on the coming of the Lord Jesus really thumps home that the Incarnation, our redemption, the forgiveness of the sin of the world and God’s promise of salvation, his gift of himself to us, is entirely his work and owes very little to human effort.
Luke understood this as we see in our Gospel (Luke 1:39-45). Now Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, one of the regular priests serving in the temple in Jerusalem on a rota basis. This distinguished them from the High or Chief priests who belonged to two powerful clans, and for whom priesthood had become a question of dynastic succession and power, and who were corrupt. Luke’s account deliberately separates Jesus from Jerusalem, the centre of power and its temple cult. Now this incident takes place in Luke’s gospel immediately after the Annunciation, and we might have expected Mary to have gone to Jerusalem during Zechariah’s period of service in the temple but, quite to the contrary, she travels some 50 miles from Nazareth, in dubious Galilee, to a small and unnamed town in the hill country of Judah for the meeting of the two would be mothers. Luke has deliberately rejected Jerusalem and its temple and cult as the venue for God’s presence and activity, and in the case of Nazareth was quite deliberately placing these great acts of God away from the heart of Judaism, and by implication finding it wanting – a theme which will feature so profoundly in the ministry of Jesus. In both cases the conception of these two chosen women is not so much due to human activity as to the power of the Holy Spirit, which allowed a barren woman as well as a virgin to conceive.
This point is really pushed home in our Gospel by what happens subsequently. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, she experiences the first movement of her child John, and realises what is to happen in these children, and gives what in Greek is describes as ‘a great cry’. We rather lose the impact of this through familiarity with the Magnificat, but in reality it is very far from the repetitive and bland statement with which we have become so familiar. It was a great scream of triumph, a victory shout, as Elizabeth realises the role she is to play in God’s redemptive plan. She does this by acclaiming Mary with words accorded to only two other women in the Old Testament. They were women who triumphed by bloody murder over the enemies of their nation; Judith (Judith 13:18) who cut off the head of Holofernes, an invading Assyrian general, and Jael (Judges 5:24-27) the prophetess, who cheerfully dispatched another, Sisera, by driving a tent peg through his skull! So not your average Jewish housewife! Mary is then seen by Luke as one whose action will change the face of Jewish history; she is destined to play a very different role from her predecessors in God’s redemptive plan. Both of those earlier women won glory and eternal fame by deeds of vicious power, but Our Lady, it is made clear, by giving her womb as the resting place of the Son of God. Her act is one of full co-operation with grace so different from the force of the two Old Testament women. They chose to act, she to accept God’s action in her. Her co-operative obedience to the Spirit sets the parameters for Jesus’ own mission, and his steadfast rejection of messiahship as understood by the majority in first century Judaism who, like his Old Testament forebears, saw it in terms of violence and power.
Our reading from Hebrews (Heb 10:5-10) follows a similar trajectory. “You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation prepared a body for me. You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin…then I said just as I was commanded…God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.”
Hebrews, you will recall, is all about the Eucharist, Christ’s perpetual gift of himself to us. The author constantly remarks on the utter inadequacy of the priestly cult in the fulfilling of this task according to the Jewish law. In Hebrews, Judaism as practised is declared redundant, made obsolete by the death and resurrection of Christ. All those actions of temple priests and millions of devout Jews who offered sacrifices for sin to placate God in some way are declared finished; it is the action of God the Father in Christ the Son which achieves our eternal relationship with God. If this was a shattering piece of writing in the late first century AD, it remains so for us today, as we contemplate the enormity of God’s coming to us at Christmas in the tiny, helpless baby.
Our reading from Micah (Mic 5:1-4), written in the 8th century BC, at the time of impending conquest by the Assyrians, is the prophet’s thunderous denunciation of a nation he sees fallen into corruption. It was a time when the powerful, who should have known better, oppressed the weak; and our writer sees the Assyrian invasion as God’s judgment. Indeed he writes of Jerusalem being placed under siege, and the rich punished by the invasion and the deportation which followed, and as we know affected the Northern kingdom, Samaria. Yet at the same time he also sees salvation coming to Judah from tiny insignificant Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, through a restored Davidic line by which God will ultimately save a chastened nation. The emphasis once again is on the divine plan and work in defiance of those human plans we all so love to make.
All our readings therefore seem to me to emphasise how God works in his own way, showing us in the events that really happen how his will is done. We like to think that we are in control of things, just as the people of Israel did; and it was the prophets’ job to remind them that this was not and never was the case. Prophets comment on the power of God for our salvation from within even the most depressing and awkward situations, ones where we fear we have completely lost control. The moment of the Incarnation is the moment however when God is entirely and confidently in control of our destinies, and the scriptures show us His plan, his way of working, not always to our liking, but to our eternal good.