Some Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
- Old Testament: Micah 5:2-5
- Canticle: The Magnificat (St. Luke 1:46-55) -or- Psalm 80:1-7
- Epistle: Hebrews 10:5-10
- Holy Gopsel: St. Luke 1:39-45*
*The Gospel lection is flexible as to guarantee that if the psalm is used in place of the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin’s song of praise is still read.
Texts in Summary:
As we come to the end of Advent, we make a thematic shift. The lectionary had been pointing us ever forward to the eschaton – starting with apocalyptic imagery at the end of St. Luke’s Gospel and then with John the Baptist’s call to repentance and use of fiery imagery. Now, the RCL is putting everyone in their starting positions.
The Old Testament text from Micah turns our attention to Bethlehem and the promise of a new David. Note the use of shepherd imagery, which we also see in David’s royal anointing – the son of Jesse was out tending the flock when Samuel came.
The reading from Hebrews reminds us of the end goal of the Incarnation. We may be moving towards Christmas and celebration, but the Cross is never far away. Note how the appointed reading employs the language of Christ’s incarnation – that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” – a feat only possible because of the Nativity.
But let’s spend our time with the Blessed Virgin. In years A and B, the Revised Common Lectionary has us read about the Annunciation (celebrated nine months before Christmas, on March 25th in the Latin West).
However, for reasons that defy my understanding, the framers of the lectionary divided up the three years between Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C) – and then decided that Matthew’s annunciation would be read in Year A and Luke’s Annunciation best fit in…year B. This leaves St. Luke’s Year C with the Visitation (which is also a feast in its own right, celebrated on May 31 in the post-Vatican II calendar).
Setting aside the oddity of this particular textual arrangement, the Visitation does continue to the narrative flow of Advent – after two weeks of John the Baptist, we see that the both the unborn Baptist and his mother, St. Elizabeth, proclaim the coming Christ.
At the same time, the Blessed Virgin’s song of praise (echoing Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2) keeps us rooted in the tension of the already and the not yet – she sings of God’s saving work through history but in a way that fills us with a yearning for the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God has toppled the might from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Just look at what happened to Egypt and to Babylon. And Christ fulfilled this work in destroying death through his death and resurrection. But we still long for this fulfillment to be – well, fulfilled. We still long for a time when the hungry are fed – and never hunger again, when the powerful are toppled and not replaced by the next Big Bad. That is what Advent has been about – not counting down the four Sundays until Christmas but counting down the unknown years until the Last Day when Christ will return in glory.
This final Sunday provides a soft landing for people preparing for Christmas, transitioning from the eschatological to the incarnational, pointing us towards both Christ’s birth at a fixed point in time and his return at the end of time.
The Visitation between Elizabeth and Mary and the thematic shift from the future parousia to the past Nativity might be a good time to intro a sermon with stories of time together with family (both biological and chosen). The image of the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb also provides an opening for preachers who like to occasionally tell stories from their personal life. As the father of a newborn, the memories of my daughter seeming to leap, kick, cartwheel, breakdance, and run laps around the womb are fresh in my mind. (Here, a note of caution though: such stories might be very painful for people who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or been unable to conceive.) I dare say that Advent 4 might be a better place for these stories than the Christmas Eve/Day sermon(s); this might be personal preference, but I am always a bit suspicious of preachers who use their time in the pulpit with an extra-large audience to tell personal stories.
But for my part, the Magnificat and the turn towards Bethlehem makes me think of salvation history. The Incarnation did occur in a vacuum, so set the stage for what’s coming on the 24th. The Mother of God is singing praise for all that the Lord has done – let’s join in the song! Tell of our fall into sin and the promise to bless the world through the heirs of Abraham and Sarah, of all the times that God has brought down the powerful and scattered the proud, of the times that God has filled the hungry with good things. And then point the one of peace coming to Bethlehem. Leave people eager to hear how this will turn out when the come back on the 24th to hear glad tidings of great joy.
Who I’m Reading to Think Through This Week:
- The Blessed Virgin Mary
That’s it. That’s the reading list.