The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: Living with God’s mystery
  2. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

Introduction to the readings. Advent and the waiting that goes with it are almost over, and the fulfilment of the expectation at Christmas is near. That is all to be seen in the readings of today’s Mass. The beginnings of the expectation of the Messiah, son of David, began with the divine promise to David that that one of his descendants would always rule on his throne. This is the substance of today’s first reading. The second reading tells of the mystery that was hidden in God through the long ages and revealed in Christ and in the Church. The beginning of the revelation of that mystery began with the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary, as recounted in today’s Gospel reading. In Irish-language tradition the feast of the Annunciation on March 25 was known as Lá Fhéile Muire na Sanaise, the Feast of Mary’s Secret or Mystery, the mystery in question being the incarnation of Christ and Mary’s virginity.

First Reading (1 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16). The kingdom of David will always stand secure before the Lord.  In the biblical context of this reading David has come into full possession of his kingdom, of both Judah and Israel.  King Saul had died and Jerusalem had come under David’s rule. During the desert wanderings the ark of  the covenant was in a tent, although by this time it had been taken by David to Jerusalem. David was now keen in providing a proper dwelling-placer, a house, a temple, for it. He said as much to his court prophet Nathan.  Part of the entourage of the king in Palestine and the surrounding countries at that time were prophets, who would be called on to give advice on matters considered as relating to God or the gods. Nathan was such a prophet. God’s reply to David through Nathan, and the promise to David it contained, is one of the most important promises with regard to history and religion. Playing on the term “house”, in the sense of Temple, that David had planned to build to God, God replied that David will not build that house to God, but on the contrary God himself will build a “house” for David, and that house will last for ever. What God had in mind was a royal dynasty for David, and that his son, and their descendants, would sit on that royal throne for ever. There would be no change of dynasty. And thus it was for the kingdom of Judah from David’s day until the destruction of the city, the state of Judah and the Davidic dynasty by the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BC. After the end of the exile, the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple and the reconstruction of Judah in 522-515 BC, under the Persian empire, Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, was Persian governor of the Persian province of Judah, and there was some hope that the Davidic dynasty would be restored. But such hope was in vain, as Zerubbabel disappeared from the scene. But, nevertheless, God’s promise to David through Nathan remained, in the biblical texts and in the liturgy. But henceforth the hope would be for the coming of an anointed on, a Messiah, the son of David. That expectation became more pronounced about a hundred years before our era, and was common in the days of Christ as we learn from the Gospels. The nature of the expected Messiah would differ. For the pious in Israel he would be one to fulfil the ancient promise and prophecy, but as God himself would see fit.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 88[89]). I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord.

Second Reading (Romans 16:25-27). The mystery, which was kept secret for endless ages, is now made clear. This present text is in the form of a doxology, a formula of praise to God. It is generally taken as the end of the epistle to the Romans, although in some manuscripts of the letter it is placed differently. It serves as a tremendous ending, with echoes of what Paul had said in his salutation at the very beginning of this letter about the gospel, which God had promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy scriptures.  Paul gives praise to God who is able to strengthen believers to live according to the good news preached by Paul himself. He speaks of the mystery that was hidden for endless ages, but now made so clear that it must be proclaimed everywhere for pagans to hear. Jesus himself, we may recall, had spoken of this mystery when he declared his  disciple blessed, happy, that their eyes had seen what they had seen and their ears heard what they had heard, because many prophets, righteous people, kings and others had longed to see and hear what they had seen and hear but had not done so. It is a mystery of which the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians have much to say,  a mystery revealed through Christ and the Church on the unity of Jew and gentile through the Cross of Christ, a mystery that means that Christ is with us, the hope of glory. Paul in this text says that the mystery is now disclosed and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophetic writings. The writings of the Old Testament prophets may be intended, but if, as is possible, this text is somewhat letter that Paul himself, New Testament writings may also be intended, even Paul’s own writings among then. This revelation of the mystery was made known to all the gentiles, to all people, and for the purpose of bringing about the obedience of faith. Faith in Christ implies obedience to Christ, to his person, to his teaching, to the Holy Spirit. Paul, as he had said in the opening words of this letter, had received from God grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.

Gospel (Luke 1:26-38). Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son. Earlier in this Gospel Luke had written of the message of the angel Gabriel to the priest Zechariah on the birth of John (the Baptist). In the sixth month after this the same angel was sent to Nazareth. Mary is called a virgin, and this is central to this passage. Although Marty was betrothed to Joseph, she could tell the angel that she did not know a man, that is that she was a virgin. The conception of Jesus will be virginal. The unexpected angel’s greeting disturbed Mary, not that it put her in a state of doubt, but presented a cause for reflection.   Mary’s reflection on the mysterious events involved are mentioned a few other times by Luke. Mary’s is to bear a son and call his name Jesus, a name which means “the Lord (Yahweh) is salvation”, although Luke does not make this point. Her son will be called Son of  the Most High, Son of God, and the angel says that he will rule over the house of Jacob, that is over all Israel,  for ever. This will mean the completion and fulfilment of the process and the promise made to David through Nathan, but it means much more than this. The first part of the conversation with the angel on Mary’s  son as heir to David, prepares for the second part with a question from Mary as to how this can be since she is a virgin. Gabriel gives the divine answer. Mary will conceive from, and through, the Holy Spirit, by the power of the Most High, and for this reason the Son she is to bear will he holy, and known as, the Son of God, a witness to God, in a special union with God.

            This reading stresses certain points, and is a reading in which Mary is central. To begin with, we have the completion and the fulfilment of the promise made to David and of other Old Testament prophecies. Then there is the emphasis on the virginity of Mary. She will conceive virginally. Her son will have no human father. And Mary is set before us as the model of the true believer. Mary has asked questions, not expressed any doubt.  As Elizabeth will say to her: “Blessed are you among women. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: Living with God’s mystery.

David’s era, about 1000 BC, with the promise made to David through Nathan, is far removed from our own day. Furthermore, all matters relating to David and his reign were limited to the people of Israel, and even God’s election of the people of Israel to reveal himself is a cause of scandal for some. Some would refer to it in a theological phrase as the scandal of particularity, the stumbling block for some that God, the creator of the universe,  would enter history in a very specialized way.  It is expressed  in the epigram, once attributed to Hilaire Belloc but probably incorrectly: “How odd of God to choose the Jews”. But with regard to the divine promise that the Davidic dynasty would last for ever, as already noted, this ended after four hundred years or so, with the destruction of the state of Judah in 587 or 586. From then on the divine promise to David became a matter of faith. Between then and the coming of Christ God’s plan of salvation for the world was a mystery hidden in God until revealed by Christ and the Church. It was gradually made known by Christ and in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in a  sense the mystery is still being revealed in the newer historical circumstances.

            The unity of the human race through the death of Christ, and Christ active among us, are two aspects of this mystery stressed in the new Testament. But more aspects than those are there and are seen when the mystery is reflected on in the light of God’s plan of salvation for the whole human race.

            This divine plan is not just some abstraction, having to do merely with a knowledge of events and plans. It is the power of God working in various ways. It works in a special way in the Eucharist and through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the liturgy as found in the Roman Missal there is rather frequent mention of “this mystery or “these mysteries”. It seems to have once been thought that these terms are too old-fashioned and were not very much used in some recent translations of the Missal, being replaced by such terms as “Mass” “Eucharist”. In they more recent revision they have been rendered literally.

            Another point that the term “mystery” in relation to Christian faith brings to mind is the joy believers should experience because the mystery has been revealed to them, a mystery hidden from countless ages, a mystery revealing God’s love for the world and the human race, and the direction in life that its teaching gives. We had an opportunity to reflect on these truths at last Sunday’s Mass, Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday calling for rejoicing, but it worth our while to return to the point again, to renew our love for the Church, and the joy of being called to membership of it.

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