Fourth Sunday of Advent, year B, December 20, 2020
The once nomadic Hebrews used to carry with them the ark of God, what we call the Ark of the Covenant. It was an ornate chest containing the stone tablets inscribed with their covenant with God. When they settled down and grew prosperous, their king proposed to build a permanent shrine for the ark. God responds to the king's plans.
Saint Paul summarizes and concludes his letter to the Romans. He emphasizes that God's plans were only incompletely revealed until now.
Saint Luke's original audience were pagans who had become Christians, and had never been Jews. For them Luke grounds the gospel in the Jewish heritage of Jesus. His introduction foreshadows much of what they already knew about the adult mission of Jesus.
Guest writer: The late Hugh M. Kahler, who long helped lectors prepare at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Marquette, Michigan, USA, wrote the "Proclaiming It" paragraphs of today's Notes.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel,Luke 1, 26-38, explains the apparent earthly lineage of Jesus: his mother's fiance was "of the house of David." That would have helped put one in good standing among the Jews, for David was a revered early king and the original Messiah (literally, "anointed one," since the inauguration ritual for Judah's kings was not crowning but anointing). Our first reading includes a prophecy that David would have a long line of royal descendants.
The Historical Situation: Moses had led God's people out of Egypt around the year we now reckon as 1250 B.C.E. Joshua led them on an invasion of Palestine around 1220. Judges ruled them from 1200 to 1025. The last Judge, Samuel, anointed for them their first king, Saul, around 1030. David succeeded Saul in 1010. The "Ark of God" all this time was an ornate chest containing the stone tablets inscribed with the covenant that God struck with Moses on Mount Sinai (thus the chest's familiar title, "Ark of the Covenant"). (See Exodus, chapter 25 for the origin of the Ark.) It was the people's single most sacred object. The chest was quite portable, appropriate for nomadic people. When the nomads stopped for a while, they erected a special tent for the Ark. But now they were more settled, so much so that their king has a permanent house. He wants to make a permanent house for the Ark.
A Theological Reflection: The great irony here is that God is too great to need a house, and, in a neat turn of phrase, promises a house of another kind for his would-be architect. God asks David "Should you be the one to build me a house? Come now, boy king. You're too big for your britches. You want to make a house? I will tell you about making a house."
New, in 2020: To hear my oratorical interpretation of just one clause, click the wedge:
This should be a required reading at every liturgy for the dedication of a church.
Proclaiming It: Here again, the Lord speaks to a man, David, through another man, Nathan the prophet. Nathan reports not a rumor, but the promise of God. God, who had worked great things through Moses and others, promises David a line of kingly succession. But the promise is conditional, upon the good behavior of David's son and successor, Solomon. Sadly, the line ends there, at least in its original sense. (Ironically, Solomon got to build the house for the Ark, the temple, that his father had wanted to build.)
Mark the heart of the text, verse 8, "The LORD of hosts has this to say:...", with a pause and change in your tone of voice. Be the messenger speaking God's word to the king.
Keep the tempo up as you detail the history of all that God did for David. You're laying the groundwork so that David must accept the conclusion that God, not David, is in charge of their shared history.New in 2017: Author Greg Warnusz gives his oral interpretation of the reading, in an impromptu youtube video.
Our Liturgical Setting: Several phrases make this passage right for the climax of Advent. It's not about the birth of the infant Jesus, but about the unveiling of God's plan for human salvation. Prophets revealed it first, but only to the Jews and only incompletely. Now it is revealed to all the Gentiles as they hear the gospel. For this is God to be glorified. This is joyful, but not sentimental. This is Christocentric, but not "Christmasy." The editors of the Lectionary must be trying to keep us focused on the big picture, at the time of year when that's most challenging. This passage bolsters a church that evangelizes itself and the world, and upbraids a church that merely assimilates.
The Theological Background: These are the concluding versions of Saint Paul's very challenging Epistle to the Romans, a letter difficult to summarize. Digests of it are highly problematic, as you may remember from the Lectionary's survey of it in the summer of liturgical year A. But you can regard this passage as a recapitulation of Romans 9, 10 and 11, a section which itself ends in a doxology similar to today's verses. Those chapters are about the history of salvation offered first to the Jews, then, because of the Jews' rejection of Jesus, to the Gentiles. Paul hopes that the Gentiles' example will win the Jews back, thus giving God a universal people, more, one might say, than the sum of its parts.
Proclaiming It: This is a perfect example of why it is so hard to proclaim Paul. Read it carefully; it is all one sentence! Three full verses--one sentence. This is going to take the best of your skills to get it across.
Read it several times before you proclaim, to get the sense of it. Observe the commas; they are important stopping points.
Don't try to do this all in one breath, but take short breaths at the commas. Keep the level of your voice even, except at the end, where you should be more emphatic.
The Historical Situation: Saint Luke wrote for an audience quite different from those of Mark and Matthew, different, too, from the Thessalonians and many other recipients of Paul's letters. Luke's readers lived a generation or more later than the apostles, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., and outside the Holy Land. They had never been Jews. They were cosmopolitan, middle-class and Gentile, living in a skeptical society, yet attracted to a religion with long historic Jewish roots. But that new religion only came to its fulfillment by reaching out to all humankind. To tell that story, to ground his audience in their adopted religious heritage, and to keep them focused on the religion's mission, Luke needed to tell the story of Jesus anew in this gospel, and needed a second book, the Acts of the Apostles.
In the chapters of Luke about the adult Jesus, nothing refers back to the infancy narrative in chapters 1 and 2. However, the early chapters point vigorously to themes that will come later. One who has read the whole gospel can then come back to the infancy narrative and "get it" in a new way. One who proclaims this gospel or preaches on it in the Sunday assembly should let the whole gospel message inform that proclamation.
The above introduction to Luke is based on the chapter "Luke" by Scholar Jerome Kodell, O.S.B, in The Collegeville Bible Commentary -- New Testament (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992)
Proclaiming It: Use different tones of voice for Mary and the angel, but don't overdo it. The climax of the reading comes at the end, where Mary expresses her complete surrender to God. She is both scared and proud. Make her sound so.
Annunciazione, (detail) by Andrea della Robbia, ca. 1475, in La Verna, Tuscany, Italy, the Chiesa Maggiore, Cappella Niccolini. This attribution per Picssr, an experimental website, now defunct, that displayed pictures from flickr.com. You may be able to learn more by opening this flickr page.
This page updated November 11, 2020