Thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Advent

This week’s Gospel reading always fills me with an irreverent mental image of the encounter depicted in Luke’s infancy narrative.  I’ll get to that in a moment but, before I do, let’s take a wider look at today’s readings.

In the first reading, David wants to build a proper temple for the Lord’s presence.  Nathan, God’s prophet in David’s court, initially gives the project the green light, but God speaks to him that night and tells David to hold off on the building work and leave that for later generations (it was David’s son, Solomon, who got the Temple built).  In the context of the season, this could be seen as a reference to God’s future intent to send his son to be the living Temple of God on Earth, so David doesn’t need to build a stone one.

Psalm 89 speaks of God’s faithfulness to his people, of God’s promise to David that God will be a father to him and to all his children forever.  In choosing this psalm for this week, the church is reminding us that God’s promise was made manifest when he sent his son to be our saviour.

St Paul reaffirms this gift with his hymn of praise to the Father and the Son.

The Jesuits teach a very powerful prayer technique, which they call Imaginitive Contemplation.  In short, you use your imagination to put yourself inside a scripture reading, either as one of the players or as a fly-on-the-wall observer.  Whenever I engage with today’s Gospel in this way, I find myself looking at a teenaged girl at work in the house.  She’s been out for water already, and is sweeping or carrying a plate of food or something.  When the angel appears (without knocking), she leaps out of her skin with a shout of “holy ****”, and sends the plate crashing to the floor.  Gabriel, interrupted in his greeting, bends down to help her tidy the mess and straighten things out before continuing the work he was sent to do.

To get the full impact of the conversation Mary has with Gabriel, we need to look back to the beginning of the chapter (the first in Luke’s Gospel).  Here, we find Gabriel on another job: this time, he’s delivering a message to Zechariah – both he and his wife are old – that Elizabeth is to conceive and bear a son, John the Baptist.  Poor Zechariah doesn’t quite believe what the angel is saying to him and he interrupts to express his doubt.  For his trouble, Gabriel gives him a royal dressing-down and takes away his power of speech.  Right before Zechariah is supposed to be running the afternoon service in the Temple.

Here, we learn that we should never question an angel.

Fast forward six months and we’re back in Nazareth with a young girl with an angel’s greeting, “kecharitomene,” ringing in her ears and the dropped tomato sauce drying on her ankles.  Unhelpfully, perhaps, he returns to his script.  “Do not be afraid,” he says, hoping that might work.

In my imagination, she offers him a cup of the water she fetched that morning and they sit together for a moment.  She says nothing, maybe cocking an eyebrow in question.  He presses on, telling her of God’s mission for her, should she choose to accept it.  The eyebrow rises again, her head shakes a little and she shows us what she’s made of.  She questions the angel.

He doesn’t smite her – maybe he’s aware that all of Heaven is watching them at that moment – instead, he respectfully answers her question without talking down to her, allowing her to exercise the free will that God bestowed upon her at the dawn of creation.

Heaven holds its breath.

She turns to him, looks him squarely in the eye and nods imperceptibly.  The girl with nerves of spun steel declares “I am the handmaid of the Lord: let what you have said be done to me.”

Thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Like last week, John the Baptist takes centre stage in the Gospel but, before he does, we are treated to a wealth of cross-references.

The keen-of-eye will recognise the first reading from Isaiah in two separate Gospel stories. The first, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me is the scripture that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18), a reading that leaves his audience on the edges of their seats. The second part of the reading, of course, is what dances from Mary’s lips when she greets Elizabeth with news of her own pregnancy with Jesus.

Unusually, the psalm this week is not taken from the book of Psalms. Following the hint from Isaiah, we hear Mary’s Magnificat, her great song of praise to God. She wasn’t inspired only by Isaiah, though, she was also calling upon one of the women of the Old Testament. Many centuries before Mary, Hannah cried out in the House of the Lord, for she was childless (much like Elizabeth). The Lord heard her prayer and she gave birth to a son who, much like Elizabeth’s son, was a great prophet.

In her prayer, Hannah had promised her child to the Lord so, when he was still very young, she took him to Eli in the House of the Lord, and offered her prayer of thanksgiving: My heart exults in the Lord, in my God is my strength lifted up, my mouth derides my foes, for I rejoice in your deliverance. (1 Samuel 2)

Samuel heard the Lord calling to him as a child, and the Lord was close to him all his life. It was to Samuel that the People of God came to demand a king, and it was Samuel who anointed first Saul and then David as kings of Israel (kings of the Jews, you might say).

In his turn, the son Elizabeth bore in her old age will baptise another King of the Jews, whom God himself anoints with the Holy Spirit, to bring glad tidings to the poor and proclaim liberty to captives.

We mustn’t forget St Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, even if we do find it tucked in between all of our wonderful cross-references. It’s a radical little text, quite subversive in its own way. While we pray fervently for the God of Peace to prepare us for his coming at Christmas, Paul urges us to test everything and retain what is good. God has given us brains and demands that we use them. We must examine our lives and all of the influences on our lives and decide for ourselves (with God’s grace) what is good and retain only what is good. The next time someone tells you that Catholics are mindless drones, point them at this passage.

And so to the Gospel. We see John the Evangelist’s take on John the Baptist’s ministry. It is important that John is given his place, but it is equally important that John is put in his place. All of the evangelists do this early on in each of their Gospels. Here, John the evangelist defines the Baptist’s role. Remember: if you see a man standing and baptising another, which of them looks like the greater of the two? The simple answer is the one doing the baptising. In order to leave Christians in no doubt as to the real power relationship at play here, John the Baptist says it plainly: “I am not the Christ.” John goes on to define what his role is in salvation history, quoting the same passage from Isaiah that we saw last week: a voice crying out in the wilderness. There is one coming, he is walking among us although we do not recognise him,  whom we are unworthy to untie the strap of his sandal.

Let us heed John’s message, then, and Paul’s too, such that the Lord will find us blameless upon his coming.

Thoughts for 2nd Sunday of Advent

John the Baptist takes centre-stage this week.  The last of the Old Testament prophets, it is his job to be a bridge from the old times into the new, to bring the people into a new relationship with God where God isn’t just a far-away presence, but is now ready to walk among his people as one of them, to roll up his sleeves and to complete the work of Salvation.

We begin with Isaiah’s great proclamation of God’s forgiveness.  The People of God have been in exile in Babylon for sixty years and God instructs his prophet to cry out in the wilderness, to give his people a new heart.  God’s anger has abated: the people have atoned for the sins of the past.  The time has come for God’s people to return to their homeland in peace.

Of course, having lived in Babylon for sixty years, the people have become somewhat settled.  They have houses, they have kids at the local school, they have jobs and friends and roots.  How many will heed the call and return?  Jerusalem was reduced to rubble by Nebuchadnezzar, and it’s not going to be an easy trip: many miles across the desert, across the Jordan and then start to really work.

God calls the people anyway.  He will be their shepherd (an image present in last week’s psalm), and gather them to his breast, to feed them and nurture them.  God’s yearning in this passage is palpable: this is a call straight from the heart of God, a heart now filled with desire to enfold his wayward people in his love, to stand at the head as they become, once again, a wandering tribe, crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.

The psalm this week is all about the fruit that springs forth from the from the very soil when God is standing there.  If ever we wonder what God’s work looks like, this is it.

In the second reading, a rare peek into the writing of St Peter, we are reminded that God’s notion of time is rather different from ours.  He is big beyond our imagining, and can see a thousand years in a single day, yet he has unimaginable attention: he can spend a thousand years appreciating the tiniest of moments.  In Advent, our time of waiting, we are called to renew our commitment to holiness so that we are not found with our spiritual trousers around our ankles when God decides that we have waited long enough.

St Mark begins his Gospel in the wilderness, reflecting on the great prophet who called the people back from Babylon 600 years before, linking Isaiah explicitly with John, whose voice was crying out to the people, exhorting them to get their hearts ready for the coming of the Messiah.

The people went to him in droves.  Leaving sacred spaces and great cities behind them, they went out into the wastelands East of the Jordan to see this man who had been chosen by God, not by the religious authorities of the time.  He was not in the Temple, yet they went out to him in the desert.  He was not a priest, yet they went, and confessed their sins.  He baptised them (for free), washing off their sins with water (at the Temple, the people would have had to buy an animal and present it for sacrifice: the larger the sin, the larger the animal.  What would you think if you saw Uncle Tony in the queue, leading a giraffe?) and calling them make themselves ready for the coming of another prophet, to make a straight path in their hearts for the Lord.

He is coming in a fortnight: what are we doing to straighten his path?