4th Sunday of Advent (C); 12-22-12
Mi 5:1-4a Ps 80 Heb 10:5-10 Lk 1:39-45
The image of John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of his mother at the sound of the greeting of the Blessed Virgin Mary harkens back to the Old Testament image of David, leaping and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. The New Testament is best understood when one references patterns of events that are described in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament foretells the Good News of salvation history, which is fulfilled in the New Testament. It is important to know that the Gospel writers did not write in a linear fashion, but in a story-telling, associative way. They did not follow the logic of a well-developed argument but that of a poem or of a dream. The Gospels, just like our dreams, can be perplexing at times, but we always sense some deep meaning at work.
In our first reading we hear first from Micah, a minor prophet who was a contemporary of Isaiah. He lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the region surrounding Jerusalem. Like the other prophets, he denounced idolatry and put special attention on injustice—especially to the poor. He predicts that God will deconstruct, purify, and, then restore Israel through a Messiah from Bethlehem.
When we hear ‘Bethlehem,’ we think of Christmas and the Christ-child in the manger. But, put yourself in Judah in the 8th century b.c. when Micah was writing: When people heard ‘Bethlehem,’ they would have understood Micah’s unspoken association with David. They would recall that the prophet Samuel came to the little town of Bethlehem in order to see Jesse because he heard from God that one of Jesse’s sons should be anointed (messiah) king. And, so in that famous scene, all of Jesse’s sons are paraded before Samuel. And, though they are handsome and powerful figures, none of them is the one. He asks Jesse, “Do you have other sons?” And, Jesse says, “Yes, there is one, but he’s the youngest and he’s out tending the sheep.” This, of course, is David whom Samuel then anoints and Scripture says that the Spirit rushed upon him. The shepherd boy of Bethlehem became the Shepherd of Israel.
Once David became king, he gathers the tribes into one kingdom, defeats Israel’s enemies, and establishes the old Jebusite city of Jerusalem as his capitol, which becomes the political center of the nation and, more importantly, its religious center. To accomplish this, David arranged to have the Ark of the Covenant come into his new holy city.
Now, allow the associations to continue. We’ve gone from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to the Ark. What was the Ark? It was a box that contained the remnants of the manna the children of Israel ate in the desert after the Exodus. And, it contained the shattered remnants of the tablets of the Ten Commandments. For centuries the Israelites carried this Ark with them. They saw it as containing almost in a literal sense the presence of God. That’s why it was used in battle, such as at Jericho; they worshiped before it and guarded it with their lives.
David brings the Ark into Jerusalem so that it would become the center of Israelite life. In a beautifully descriptive scene, David dances with reckless abandonment before the Ark as it is brought into the holy city—so delighted is he to be in the presence of his Lord.
Now, in the Gospel for today taken from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Mary enters the house of her cousin Elizabeth, who is the wife of Zachariah, a priest of the holy temple. Mary, of course, is pregnant and she’s carrying within her the Christ-child. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the child leaps in her womb. A first century Jew wouldn’t have missed this: John the Baptist is David dancing before God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant.
Luke is telling us that Mary is the true Ark of the Covenant. She is the true bearer of the sacred Presence. John the Baptist is the new David dancing before the Ark. The Ark, which the Israelites carried about for centuries; the Ark that eventually found its way to David’s city; the Ark that was the focus of Israelite worship for centuries; the Ark that was ensconced in the Holy of Holies that the High Priest would visit just once a year was but a foreshadowing of this Ark to come: the womb of Mary which would be the true abode for the presence of God! In this Gospel we come to recognize that the true Ark of the Covenant—the true place of worship, the true presence of the Lord is found in the womb of this Virgin Mary.
What a wonderful preparation for Christmas!
Church, what do we do when we take in this overwhelming truth? What do we do when we stand before the true Ark of the Covenant? We do what David did. We do what the infant John the Baptist did. WE DANCE!
But, you may say, I don’t feel like dancing. In light of the horror that’s engulfed us, dancing just doesn’t seem right. What can you possibly be thinking?
It’s an old-age question. The Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamozov said, “It’s not that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t want anything to do with a God that permits innocent children to suffer.”
Let’s hold on to what we know to be true. God is love, who pours himself into creation in unconditioned self-gifting. Everything we are–imago Dei, a child of God–and everything we have (our gifts, talents, and very life) is all gratuitous grace from a God who invites us into a Life that is meant to endure forever.
I believe that to be true, but, I ask: “God, where were you in Newtown when the children were being slaughtered?” I recall what God said to Moses in the Burning Bush, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people; I have heard their cry of complaint; I know full well what they are suffering. And, I will send you, Moses to liberate my people from their oppression” (cf Exodus 3:7-10).
I believe our loving God was at Newtown, suffering with the children and families. God does not abandon us in our indescribable hurts, but he is there with us no matter what. That’s why St. Paul’s words always ring true: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
(Looking up at the crucifix)…The worst thing that’s ever happen is the death of Christ. The crucifix is an instrument of torture. Our God poured himself into our hearts so that we may be saved and experience life everlasting. Our response to the goodness of God is to crucify him. But, God does not give up on us; he forgives us. He absorbs our sin and dysfunction, he becomes sin and he dies to it. But, that’s not the end of the story because he transforms sin and death into everlasting life through the power of his resurrection. We don’t worship a dead guy who had nice things to say. We worship the Son of Man who has Risen!
He is alive and he is present here and now in our midst. He is present in the Word of God! He is present in our assembly! He is present in our presiding priest! And, he will be present in the eucharistic elements!
And, what do we do when we stand before the presence of God?
Paul calls us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
Brothers and sisters, that’s why we rejoice. That’s why we dance!