December 23, 2018
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Shepherd of Israel, hearken
“I come to do your will”
Mary visits Elizabeth
Where do we find the Nativity stories in the Bible? Not in Mark’s Gospel, which begins with the baptism of John, when Jesus is an adult. John’s Gospel does not have infancy stories, but it does begin with the Incarnation hymn (“The Word became flesh …”), and that provides us with the Gospel for Christmas Day. Matthew tells us about the Magi, Herod, and the flight to Egypt. These texts provide readings for Dec. 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and Epiphany, when we hear about the visit of the Magi. But not for Christmas itself.
That leaves us with Luke. It is in this Gospel that we hear about the Annunciation, the Visitation, the census that takes the family to Bethlehem. If Matthew has given us the star, the Wise Men with their camels, the three kinds of gifts, it is Luke who has contributed the inn and the stable, the shepherds and the sheep. In Matthew’s account we find King Herod; in Luke’s, the census called by Caesar Augustus.
And it is Luke’s Gospel that mentions Gabriel, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, along with Mary and Joseph. These humble people, commonly called the Anawim, meaning the poor of Yahweh, populate Luke’s first chapters. They share certain characteristics. Here are three of them. First, they are humble villagers, of small consequence in the scale of worldly values.
A dramatic quality of Luke’s account is that the world stage is visible in the background, as a census “of the whole world” is being taken up, as part of the Pax Romana, the world peace enforced by Roman might. But in the foreground we find at the center of our drama these humble people, carrying on their lives. And amazingly, from among them comes something new, something that will affect that larger world, symbolized in the fact that the calendar is beginning again, as the entire world now dates its activities from this one event.
A second thing about the villagers is that they are consistently described as devout, or righteous. Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the eyes of God.” Simeon was “righteous and devout.” Anna “worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” And interestingly, Joseph of Arimathea, at the far end of the Gospel, attending Jesus’ burial instead of his birth, is similarly described, as a “virtuous and righteous man.” He too seems to belong among the Anawim.
The third thing to notice is that they are waiting. Joseph of Arimathea was “awaiting the kingdom of God.” Simeon was “awaiting the consolation of Israel.” Anna was speaking to all who were “awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” This posture of waiting tells me that they are among the powerless, in the sense that they are not in the position to force events in their favor. They are waiting for God to turn things around, to bring about the new day. In her song, the Magnificat, Mary describes some of what that means for them:
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
But the Christmas stories of Luke are about more than the waiting. They are also about the end of the waiting. This is the testimony of today’s story of the Visitation, as Elizabeth greets Mary with the recognition that she is “the mother of my Lord.” Just as it is part of Mary’s answer to Elizabeth. It is the message of Gabriel to Mary, “you will bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David.”
And it is the message of the angels to the shepherds, announcing “on earth peace” as if they hadn’t heard of the Pax Romana.
For reflection: Surely the Magnificat is a Christmas carol.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.