Commentary for Advent IV

Commentary for Advent IV 20 December 2020

The texts for this week, Advent 4, are 2 Sam 7.1-11, 16, Lk. 1.47-55, Rom. 16.25-27, and Lk 1.26-38

By Father Doug Woods

It's dark and dreary today.  I think I have a real sense of what the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" is talking about.  Monday will be Midwinter, the shortest day of the year, but look at it this way; the days will start getting longer on Tuesday.  Soon the robins will be chirping again, just you wait!


O.K., get out your bible and open it up.  


2 Sam 7.1-11 Once, on a trip to Newfoundland, we were touring one of the historical sites, and our guide asked us, "Do you know why the churches in Newfoundland are always up the hill from the harbour and town?"  I waxed eloquent about the wonderful view and/or that it should be where everyone can see it.  He said, "Nope.  By the time they thought of building a church, all the good land down by the water was already taken with houses and businesses."


Is that what's going on in this reading from 2 Samuel?  Here's King David living in his house of cedar (I'm having trouble here; a house of cedar?  Sounds like a good ole log cabin to me!  I always thought of Hebrew kings as living in stone or clay block houses), and he says, "Oh, my gosh!  We forgot to build a house for the Lord!  We can't have that!"


Nathan the prophet says, "Go for it," but then that night, Nathan has a vision; the Lord says to him, "David's going to build me a house?  Why do I need that?"  And then he makes a very important point  "I'm not limited to one place.  I'm everywhere.  I don't need a house."  Most of the peoples at that time had a local god.  They believed that their god lived there in that land, and if you went somewhere else, you left your god behind.  Not so the God of Israel!


The Lord says, "Tell David this, 'You're going to make me a house?  No.  I've been with you wherever you were and whenever you needed me.  Now I'm going to make you a house (good pun, eh?  JDW).  I chose you when you were still a boy taking care of your father's sheep.  Now I'm going to make a name for you, just like the other greats of the world, and I'm going to make a place for my people and keep them safe.  Your house and your kingdom will be safe, and your throne will last forever.'"  So, now have a look at the gospel reading; a thousand years after that promise, it's coming true.


Lk. 1.47-55 This is not the gospel reading for today, though it does come from one of the gospels.  You'll recognize it if you were ever an attender at evensong.  It's the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, one of the evensong canticles.  It's from the next pericope after today's gospel reading, when Mary journeys to "the hill country of Judah" to share the good news of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth.  (Read that pericope; it's only half a page.)  After Elizabeth has realized what's going on, Mary says (sings?) this prayer:  "My soul doth magnify the Lord …."  Magnify?  That's why it's called the Magnificat (the first word of the Latin version).  It's not magnify with a lens; it's praise.


For those of you who are fans of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, you might recognize the Magnificat in 1 Samuel 2.1-10.  1 Samuel begins with the story of Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah.  Peninnah has children, but it appears that Hannah is barren, and Peninnah taunts her about it.  To make a long story short, Hannah prays to the Lord, and the Lord intervenes.  Hannah bears a son and names him Samuel (the Hebrew name sounds like the Hebrew word which means 'heard of God').  Then Hannah's "song" begins in 1 Sam. 2; it sounds a lot like the Magnificat.  Both Hannah's song/prayer and Mary's song/prayer are full of reversals, bad/unpleasant/unjust things being rectified.  That's a hallmark of Luke's gospel-things being stood on their head.  This reading points to the Messianic promise of 2 Samuel 7.1-11.


Rom. 16.25-27 Paul usually ends his letters with some kind of a prayer, either a doxology or a benediction.  This one is a doxology, essentially "To God be glory!"  Paul never says in ten words what he can say in a hundred, but this one contains important material, e.g., the reminder that God strengthens us by the Gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ (ah, that's ten words instead of a hundred!), a "mystery" which has existed for ages.  A "mystery"?  It's only a mystery if you don't hear, don't listen, or don't accept it.  Otherwise, it's as plain as the nose on your face.  It's been disclosed through the "prophets", e.g., today's reading from 2 Samuel; the Good News is that the Messiah has come and will come to sit on the everlasting throne of David.


Lk 1.26-38 This text is loaded!  There are lots of things we have to say about it.  The simple version is that Gabriel, a messenger from God, comes and tells Mary, a girl who lives in Galilee, that she's going to bear a son who will be the Saviour, and she says, "O.K."


But to really understand this, we have to hear with the ears of a first century Palestinian.  In that place and time, the place for women and girls was out of sight, usually in the rooms at the centre of the house or in the courtyard of the house.  Females were to be in the company of other females and/or children.  The assumption was that if males and females were allowed to be together, sex would come into it, either willingly or unwillingly, and there were very specific prohibitions about that.  Men and boys, on the other hand, were in public view, e.g., either out in public or in the public rooms of the house.


The story says that Mary was "perplexed".  That's an understatement; she probably felt threatened, afraid.  Why should she?  She's where she belongs.  Ah, it's undoubtedly the suddenness of it and the fact that there's a man in a private area of the house, where he doesn't belong.  That poses a potential threat.


Another problem is that Mary is betrothed.  We don't do that anymore, but at the time, marriage was a multistep process (though an Anglican wedding still contains a "betrothal").  The first step in a marriage was that the family of the bride and the family of the groom agreed to the marriage.  It was contractual, and it bound the two families together.  Next came the betrothal, where the bride and groom promised to be faithful to one another.  Betrothal was an important step, and it was as binding and significant as marriage is nowadays.  Well, if Mary is betrothed to Joseph, and there's a strange man in her room, that's a big problem.  If anyone finds out, it will shame her and Joseph and their families.  Shame was a fate worse than death in that world at that time.  So Mary is afraid.


Apparently, Gabriel understands, and his greeting is meant to put her at ease:  "Greetings, favoured one!  The Lord is with you. … Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God."  Favour.  That smacks of another custom of the time and place:  patronage.   A patron did favours for his clients, and they were expected to do things for the patron in return.  This still exists; it's part of the basis of Mafia practice.  Having clients brought honour to the patron and work done in return for favours brought honour to the clients.  In this case in the mind of the time, God is the patron, and Mary is the client.  Gabriel is bringing a message from the patron to the client, Mary, the favoured one.


So now the pressure is off.  It's not about sex, it's about honour.  But it does have ramifications, come to think of it.  The question is what's the methodology?  "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  It's not a matter of doubt; it's a matter of how this will happen.  Virgin.


The word virgin occurs only sixty times in all of scripture, and only three times in the gospels, one in Matthew and two in Luke.  It's instructive to start with the use in Matthew:  "'The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' (which means 'God with us')."  This is a quote from Isaiah 7.14b:  "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."  Look again.  The Matthew quote is inaccurate.  The Isaiah says "young woman", not "virgin".  Why would Matthew say "virgin"?  Was it assumed that a young woman was a virgin?  The term virgin carries extra freight; it also means sexually inactive, and that's going to make problems; how can a pregnant woman not be sexually active, i.e., how can she be a virgin?  On the other hand, if she's a young woman, then all the problems go away; she can be pregnant by her husband.  Only Matthew and Luke have infancy stories of Jesus, and Luke uses the same word as Matthew's:  virgin.


Please understand.  I'm not saying God couldn't do that.  I'm not saying God didn't do that.  What I am saying is that miracles are problematic in our society/world.  We're all educated people, and our education says that pregnant women aren't virgins.  What I wonder is would it change the meaning of the story if Mary were a young woman instead of a virgin?  Would Jesus be any less the Son of God?  "Son of" is a common usage in those times; it means 'characterized by', e.g., James and John "Sons of Thunder".  How literally are we meant to take this?  Also, Jesus traces his lineage back to David through Joseph.  How can that be if Joseph isn't his father-and Gabriel's message is clear on this:  " … the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David."


The thing is I have no problems with miracles; they've happened in my life, so I have no problem with literal interpretation of Mary as a virgin.  It just looks odd if you're not a believer-and sometimes even if you are!

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