4th Sunday of Advent

December 20, 2009
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Micah 5:2-5a
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 10:5-10
Reading 4: 
Luke 1:39-45 and Luke 1:46b-55
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Micah 5:2-5a
This passage from Micah, referred to in Matthew’s account of the search of the Magi for the newborn king, is a prophetic anchor for the tradition that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In today’s lectionary, this reference, along with the verse about “she who is in labor” bringing forth, tie the passage specifically to Luke’s account of Mary’s pregnancy and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Because the one to be born “shall be the one of peace,” it is promised that “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,” and will be linked to the return of the dispersed kindred “to the people of Israel.” The contrast between the current dispersed condition of the people and the future promise that “they shall live secure” in a restored homeland, and the contrast between the “littleness” of Bethlehem among the clans of Judah and the “greatness to the ends of the earth” of the one who is to come forth, foreshadow the contrasts of the Great Reversal that Mary and Elizabeth will signify in their meeting and that Mary will celebrate in her song.

Luke 1:46b-55
These verses, often known as the Magnificat or Song of Mary, actually follow the episode told in the Gospel reading for today. Alternate selections in the lectionary allow for these verses to be read as part of the Gospel passage, with Psalm 80:1-7 then serving as the Response. If the preacher wishes to make an explicit connection between Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s song, it may be desirable to use the alternate selection. As presented, however, the use of the Magnificat as the Response gives the congregation the opportunity to join in Mary’s song, and to participate in its own right in Mary’s celebration of the Great Reversal of the Gospel. Mary rejoices in the promise that the proud will be scattered, the powerful dethroned, the poor raised up, the hungry fed, and the rich emptied. This rejoicing in the Great Reversal is of course a powerful theme in the whole prophetic tradition, and is the more particularly connected with the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Hannah’s song of vindication and joy at the conception of Samuel, in whom was set the pattern of relation between prophet and king that more or less defined the prophet’s role for centuries. Mary’s song echoes this prophetic tradition powerfully, and at the same time looks forward to the role she will play in God’s mercy being shown to generations “from now on”: because “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” because of God’s particular action in empowering Mary to conceive Jesus, she herself is blessed and is the channel through whom blessing will enter the world “from generation to generation.” When the congregation sings or says this song in the liturgy, taking Mary’s words as its own, we in our time and place are included in the work of the Great Reversal, we in our time and place are included in the bringing-forth of blessing that feeds the hungry and lifts up the lowly and transforms the distribution of power. In taking on these words as its own, the congregation can be encouraged to think about the concrete ways in which it bears out “the promise made to our ancestors” in work for justice and peace today. These are the things that make our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.

Hebrews 10:5-10
The choice of this passage from Hebrews for the last-Sunday-before-Christmas seems largely to follow from the phrase “a body you have prepared for me” and its reference to the Incarnation, the feast for which the whole of Advent has been a preparation. Weaving a sort of midrash out of a catena of psalm verses, the author offers a speculative picture of the pre-Incarnation devotion of the divine Son to the will of God: to accept the body prepared is to “come to do your will, O God”; and to do God’s will in becoming incarnate is a better fulfillment of God’s will than “sacrifices and burnt offerings and sin offerings” which God “has not desired” and in which God “takes no pleasure.” The author therefore draws the conclusion that the Incarnation definitively does away with all forms of animal sacrifice—a consistent theme in Hebrews and a basic element in Christian eucharistic theology. More importantly, the Incarnation transforms the means of sanctification from animal victimization to a human relationship with the human Christ. Jesus’ offering “once for all” creates a field of force in which all subsequent Christly relationships are given the potential for fulfilling God’s will in embodying divine ideals. This new social field of sanctification in Christ is reflected in another, more personal, way in the relationship of Elizabeth and Mary in the Gospel passage.

Luke 1:39-45
In the pattern of Gospel readings for the Sundays of Advent, in all three years of the lectionary, the first Sunday always draws from the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, the second and third Sundays always focus on John the Baptist, and the fourth Sunday always relates an episode leading up to the birth of Jesus. In Year C, that before-the-birth episode is an account of Mary’s stay at the house of her older relative Elizabeth, often referred to as The Visitation. Luke structures the first chapter of his gospel very tightly, with incidents and episodes woven together in great detail; and in this instance the tight integration of the episodes works in a way against the lectionary selection.

Today’s passage begins “In those days Mary set out,” with little or no explanation of what “those days” include. The situation is this: Elizabeth is six months pregnant with the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist, whose conception, birth, and vocation were foretold to his father Zechariah by Gabriel. Zechariah has been struck speechless because he disbelieved Gabriel’s foretelling, but Elizabeth is rejoicing that her barrenness has been relieved and she has been vindicated by God’s empowering her to conceive. In that respect Elizabeth stands in the line of Hannah, whose connection to the Magnificat has already been noted. Just before this episode, Mary had also been visited by Gabriel, who announced to her that she would conceive and bear a son, despite her protest that she was a virgin, and her son would be called the Son of the Most High. Mary receives this startling news by saying “Let it me with me according to your word,” giving her “Yes” to God, and so co-creating with God the possibility of blessing and salvation. But because she is not yet married, to conceive and bear a son would put her in a very precarious social position in Nazareth, and possibly a precarious position with Joseph as well—after all, it is in Matthew’s account that an angel appears to Joseph to assure him of Mary’s integrity; Luke leaves us to wonder how Joseph receives the news—so Mary decides she needs the wisdom and guidance of an older woman who can understand her unusual situation. That is why she “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,” where Elizabeth and Zechariah live, to stay with them for about three months. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, it touches off a series of recognitions. The “recognition scene” was a staple element in classic Greek literature, and Luke, being a fine storyteller in the Hellenistic style, uses that Greek literary element to good effect in his narrative. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the unborn John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb recognizes the presence of the unborn Jesus in Mary’s womb, and leaps for joy. Elizabeth then recognizes the meaning of her baby’s movement—not just a random kick, but a ready greeting—and in turn recognizes Mary as “the mother of my Lord” and “she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

This near-clairvoyance on Elizabeth’s part is the work in her of the Holy Spirit, which empowers her to recognize realities she herself could not have witnessed firsthand. Mary, in turn, recognizes the work of the Spirit in Elizabeth’s sudden knowledge, and responds with her Magnificat, already discussed above. It is in this complex weave of recognitions and recognitions-of-recognitions that the witness to the coming of the Christ emerges. No one element alone tells the whole story; but together these women and their unborn children proclaim the advent of the Lord. They are therefore living signs of the Great Reversal: two women, insignificant in the eyes of patriarchal culture—one old, one young; one barren, one not yet childbearing; neither possessing any particular dignity nor power—are yet the first to recognize the embodiment of God’s holiness in a human life. Put another way, in more specifically process-relational terms, Elizabeth and Mary’s relationships—with each other, with God, with Zechariah and Joseph, with the townspeople and villagers; relationships both of support and subjugation, both suspicion and rejoicing—Elizabeth and Mary’s relationships form the social matrix, the field of force, in which God can bring forth new relevant aims, new possibilities, for the realization of justice and peace and love. Those new possibilities are gathered most obviously in the unborn John and Jesus, whose potentials will unfold in adult lives of ministry and mission. But those new possibilities are also and immediately evident in Elizabeth and Mary, in the inspiration and insight and song they share, in the way their lives are redirected by the potentials for justice and peace God opens up for them. The question for the contemporary interpreter and congregation, then, is how we recognize the presence of Christ within and among ourselves, what social matrix we build up for the harboring of divine aims for justice and peace, how our lives are redirected by the new potentials God brings forth in our complex relationships.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.